National Review Online*
August 15, 2002
By Alan W. Dowd

Americans have notoriously short memories. As Henry Ford put it, "We want to live in the present." In his quintessentially American way, he concluded that "History is more or less bunk." September 11, 2001, is now a part of history. However, because of the destruction it wrought, the lives it ended or otherwise altered, and the images it produced, we may remember it in spite of ourselves. The question before us is how should we remember it.

Writing in City Journal, essayist and editor Myron Magnet discussed the care that must be devoted to planning and erecting a monument to September 11 and its World Trade Center victims. In Magnet's view, the Manhattan memorial should be an "eloquent, unembarrassed declaration of the profound, shared but still inchoate grief, patriotism, resolve, and rededication that the city and nation feel together." Moreover, he warned, it must not be an imitation of other memorials — a wall of names, empty granite chairs, bronzed figures frozen amid their struggle, "a trickle of water weeping out of polished stone." Instead, it must meet the difficult challenge of being both different and timeless.

With the first anniversary of the attacks upon us, the nation faces a similar challenge in how it observes September 11. Like the memorial envisioned by Magnet, the day itself should reflect grand themes — freedom, resolve, unity, hope. And it must not become an imitation of other anniversaries or national holidays. September 11 must be different in character and tone than its sister holidays. It is not an autumn Memorial Day. After all, Memorial Day honors members of the armed forces who die in wartime. Underscoring the hideous nature of our new enemy and the war it thrust upon us, the vast majority of September 11's victims were not in the military. Moreover, the nation was at peace the morning of September 11, at least until those four civilian airliners turned against our cities.

Likewise, September 11 has little in common with Veterans Day, which once was a celebration of the end of the Great War and is now a day of recognition for all military veterans. Given its somber mood, September 11 shares no common ground with Independence Day either, which has always been celebrated with frivolity and the blast of fireworks. And let us hope it doesn't follow the path of Thanksgiving, which now marks little more than the beginning of the Christmas shopping season, or Pearl Harbor Day, which passes each December unobserved by most Americans.

To paraphrase Lincoln at Gettysburg, we cannot dedicate or consecrate the gaping hole in Manhattan, the western wall of the Pentagon, or the nameless field in Pennsylvania. That has already been done by the thousands who died and hundreds who tried to save them. But we can — and must — dedicate the day they died to something more than parades, football games, holiday sales, or simple leisure activities. In a word, September 11 should become both more and less than a national holiday.

The United States is held together by ideas rather than language, creed, ethnicity, or race. One of those ideas holds that each person has a right to improve his lot in life. Jefferson's masterpiece calls this the "pursuit of happiness." Madison conveys this American idea in the very first sentence of the Constitution, with the phrase, "to form a more perfect union." Terminally optimistic, Americans have always been driven by the notion that if they work hard enough or long enough, they can improve their lives, build a more perfect nation, and perhaps in the pursuit of happiness, find happiness. In a very real sense, that is the American dream in all of its profound simplicity.

It is not surprising, then, that almost all of September 11's victims died at work. They were pilots and flight attendants, brokers and bankers, vendors and waiters, soldiers and firefighters, business travelers and teachers. Many died doing what they loved, some died doing what they had to do, but each died in pursuit of what he or she defined as happiness.

Even so, if the flurry of phone calls from the smoldering World Trade Towers and hijacked airplanes is any indication, all of them died with something other than work on their minds and hearts. Some called their parents; some called their spouses and kids; others called friends and neighbors, brothers and sisters. Through the panic and shock and fear, they sent their love and said goodbye. Had the situation been reversed, if they were instead trapped at home with their loved ones as they died, it's hard to imagine them calling their places of business to say goodbye.

There is a great lesson in that, and it's a lesson that should shape the way we observe September 11: Some things are more important than work. Those things, like happiness, may vary from person to person, but we as a nation should set aside a day to reflect on them. September 11 should be that day — a kind of national Sabbath to reflect and rest. Individuals and communities could observe the day in their own ways. But within the bounds of prudence and public safety, businesses of all kinds should be encouraged to close their doors each September 11.

If the nation's political leaders were able to convince employers to do this — whether through moral suasion or legislation — September 11 would have a dramatically different feel and tone than every other national holiday. There would be no presents to buy, no holiday sales to visit, no cards to send, no feast to cook, no parades to orchestrate, no customers to serve. Instead, an entire nation would reflect on what we lost and what we have. Perhaps just as important, by observing September 11 in this way, we could protect it from the superficial gunk and pageantry that collects around other U.S. holidays, leaving its deeper meaning and purpose exposed.


That's a tall order for a fidgety, restless nation like ours. This is, after all, the land of fast food, FedEx, and fax machines. Americans seldom dwell on the past and rarely appreciate the present. Instead, we look ahead and move ahead, always bustling, multitasking, expending energy, cutting inefficiency, saving time, racing forward, pursuing happiness. As Alexis de Tocqueville observed 170 years ago, "Everyone is in motion, some in quest of power, others of gain." In de Tocqueville's timeless view, we were then — and remain today — "so confused, so excited, so active." Simply put, solitude and reflection are not virtues in America.

Yet just as we are not much different than our ancestors, our ancestors weren't much different than the ancients. From the very beginning, work has been a part of life for humanity — and so has the temptation to work too much and too hard. Of course, work in of itself is not a bad thing. Indeed, Genesis tells us God worked for six days, building a universe and crafting creation itself. As He worked, He looked upon what He had created — daytime and twilight, land and sky and water, trees and flowers, stars and planets, beast and man — and He declared that it was good. But not only were the fruits of His labor good, so was the labor itself.

When it builds up and creates and nurtures, when it has meaning and purpose beyond the moment, work is a wonderful — indeed, essential — part of life. But without rest and reflection, work can actually destroy us and what we build, imperceptibly devouring the space and time that make life worth living — and happiness worth pursuing. As British historian C. N. Parkinson wrote, "Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion." Perhaps this is why God created the Sabbath, a day of rest.

By setting aside a day to reflect and rest as one nation, we would honor the memory of those who died, take stock of the work they did, and appreciate the things they created. In doing so, we would implicitly recognize that the men and women who died on September 11 were more than the sum of their labors. Likewise, a nation is more than the sum of its consumption or production or wealth. God recommends one day of rest out of seven for people. Just one out of 365 for a nation that works 24 hours a day, seven days a week, is anything but extravagant or excessive. Indeed, a national Sabbath — or perhaps "Day of Remembrance" would be more palatable — would be a mere eye-blink in the dizzying pace of a year.

This is not to imply that September 11 should become a day only for religious people, however. Like Thanksgiving, a Day of Remembrance may have religious undertones, but it need not be a religious day. Just as one can be thankful on the fourth Thursday in November without being religious, one can be reflective and restful on September 11 without worshipping a god.

Nor does a Day of Remembrance necessarily have to be a day of mourning. As Rabbi Hayim Donin observes in his book To Be a Jew, when properly practiced, the Sabbath "is a day of peaceful tranquility, inner joy and spiritual uplift." But how can we be tranquil as a war rages, how can we be joyful about mass murder, how can we be uplifted by a day so dark and a memory so raw? There is no easy answer to those hard questions, especially for the thousands of families torn apart by September 11. Many of them still live in a cold netherworld between life and death, where anxiety, melancholy and depression collide to form a toxic mix. Unlike the rest of us, who watched the death and destruction through the safe filter of television, these secondary victims of September 11 are haunted by constant reminders of that awful day — the un-dented pillow, the uncelebrated birthday, the unspoken "I love you."

But perhaps a Day of Remembrance would give America a chance to reflect on life rather than death, to remember the heroism and selflessness that followed the attacks rather than the cowardice and hatred that spawned them. Men like Father Mychal Judge and his fellow firefighters, who ran into danger when others ran away, should uplift our spirits. The story of Flight 93, whose passengers sacrificed themselves to spare untold hundreds from death and an entire nation from further trauma, should be passed down to inspire our children and their children and every other generation of Americans.

The fact that people from every walk of life and almost a hundred countries can work together in one building, in one city, in one great nation, should bring us joy and even a sense of awe. As Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld observed, "They died because of how they lived — as free men and women, proud of their freedom, proud of their country and proud of their country's cause." He may have been speaking outside the Pentagon, but his words are just as apt for the victims in Manhattan and Pennsylvania.

Finally, the goodness and fairness of our countrymen, which was never more evident than after the attacks, should give us great peace. We did not lash out in blind fury. We did not imitate our enemy by murdering innocents. Instead, we fed and clothed the friendless Afghani people, as is our way in war. In 2002 alone, America will pour $300 million in humanitarian aid into Afghanistan, the very same country that spawned and sponsored al Qaeda. Nor did we turn against our Arab-American neighbors; we did not burn mosques or condemn an entire faith for the actions of a barbaric few. Instead, we helped each other, as is our custom at home.


Some will argue that the best way to honor the victims of September 11 is to follow their example and keep on working, that to rest the great furnace of American commerce — even for a day — will give the terrorists a victory of sorts. Although reasonable people can disagree on this point, it seems the very opposite is true. What separates us from the enemy — what separates civilization from barbarism — is how much we value life and freedom. In fact, to go about our business as if September 11 is just another day would seem to display the kind of single-mindedness and callousness that we so despise in our enemy.

Still others will say that a national Sabbath or Day of Remembrance cannot be observed in our secular, multicultural society. But they are forgetting what followed September 11, 2001. In the aftermath of the attacks, this nation of countless creeds turned away from its many labors, diversions, games, traditions, and rituals. People of various faiths prayed with one voice. People of no faith at all paused to reflect and remember. Our Congress beseeched God for guidance and endurance. Political, religious, and business leaders gathered together in a place of worship to grieve and reflect. And our president spoke with the words and cadence of a priest: "This world He created is of moral design," President George W. Bush assured a nation, his voice crescendoing from a whisper to a shout before falling back again. "Grief and tragedy and hatred are only for a time. Goodness, remembrance and love have no end. And the Lord of life holds all who die and all who mourn."

Astonishingly, the First Amendment remained intact; church and state remained separate; and thanks in part to the strength and resolve it found during that first day of remembrance, America emerged from its fetal position of despair and doubt to face a darker, grimmer tomorrow.

September 11 was different than any other day in American history, and the way we observe it should be as well. As Rabbi Donin writes, "Modern man may celebrate many holidays, but he observes few holy days." If ever there was a holy day for this great, secular republic, it is September 11. And if ever we needed to observe such a day, it is now.

*FOX News Channel's Fox & Friends featured Dowd in an interview about this article on August 17, 2002.