Henry James On Rich Progressives
A New Kind of Crazy

Remembering 9/11--Or Not

I don't really have anything interesting to add to the reminiscences that are appearing everywhere. I wrote about the event fifteen years ago, in a Sunday Night Journal post called "Eventually, Like Napoleon: My 9/11 Column." On re-reading it, I see a sentiment that would get me labelled as a xenophobe now, and probably would have then if the people who like to use the word had happened to read the piece: I proposed as one possible response that we (the country) could begin being really, really careful about immigration from mostly or officially Muslim countries.

But on this anniversary I'm aware of one element of some of these reminiscences that I don't recall seeing before: prefatory remarks along the lines of "For those old enough to remember..." That was startling to me. Can it really have been long enough since September 2001 that there are people young enough not to remember it?

Well, yes, of course, it can and it is. Most people under twenty-five or so will have little or no memory, and since we persist, in spite of evidence to the contrary, in treating anyone over twenty-one as an adult, this comes to a fair number of adults. And what memory they do have will be those of a child who had no idea what was really going on. And many of those under thirty won't have a great deal more than that. 

This reminds me of a similarly startling realization that hit me some thirty years ago. At work one day several of us were standing around talking, the way people do in offices (unless someone prevents them), and the question came up, as it sometimes does among people old enough to remember it: where were you when you heard that JFK had been shot? A couple of people gave their answers (I was in 10th grade biology class). Then one young woman, having heard these, piped up: "I don't have any idea where I was because I was only two years old." And yet there she was, one of us, the grown-up people doing grown-up jobs. I think the rest of us were a bit stunned; I know I was. How could there be a functioning adult who did not remember the Kennedy assassination? (The first one, I mean. The second one never had the same effect.)

I just can't get used to this time thing. 


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For instance:



The first one is from someone who was two, the second from someone who was eight.

I was four when Kennedy was assassinated. I don't recall anything about it. What I do recall, however, very clearly is seeing Jack Ruby shoot Lee Harvey Oswald on television. In fact, I would say that is my first memory of any public event.

On the other hand, I clearly remember the RFK assassination. Although I was not watching on TV at the time, since it was in the middle of the night, the next morning my friend Jimmy called me to tell me about it. I remember being very shaken. Strangely, I don't really remember anything about the Martin Luther King assassination. Perhaps it was because RFK was Catholic. It certainly wasn't because of any overt racism in my family, because there was none that I can point to.

I’m surprised you remember the Oswald shooting. But then I think I remember people talking about Adlai Stevenson vs Eisenhower...oh wait, I was thinking he only ran in ‘52, when I was 4, but he ran in ‘56 as well, so that’s probably what I remember.

I just read your 2006 piece. It must have been terribly difficult for you, having 9/11 happen at the same time your father was dying. This is very moving about the scene after his death two days later: "Newscasts were still, of course, focused almost exclusively on the disaster. At my parents’ house, the TV stayed on with the sound turned off, and so the mourning and the reminiscing had as a macabre backdrop the sight of the towers burning and falling over and over again (the media had not yet decided to stop showing them)."

My next big memory of a public event was of the Johnson Goldwater election campaign. I remember playing on the swing set in our backyard, when I was 5, and talking with my sisters about how evil Goldwater was. My family were democrats.

"You've got to be carefully taught" :-) I was 15 then and I remember the "daisy" ad. I'm not 100% sure now whether I actually saw it or just read about it in Time. I mean, I definitely did the latter, I distinctly remember that, more than seeing the ad itself. I think that was a milestone in the journey toward turning politics into a really malicious branch of show business.

Marianne, it was certainly very weird. That's the word that comes to mind more than "difficult," for what it's worth. I mean, I don't remember that the juxtaposition made the death harder to take, especially as we had known it was coming. But it was...weird. And of course the whole country was still very much on edge in fear of another attack, so that lent another element of anxiety.

I remember that there was a real unity for a while, and this morning I was thinking that it was probably our last moment of unity.

I had that JFK experience with the kids at the Newman Center when I worked there.

Once in our homeschool history group, a friend was trying to elicit the answer to a question that I have forgotten, but the answer was the first Gulf War. I realized then that the oldest of the kids would have been babies.


"probably our last moment of unity" I've been a little obsessed with the question of what would happen in that respect if another 9/11 sort of thing happened. I tend to doubt that the same nationwide unity would happen again.

On 9/11 I was in Florence, climbing around in the dome of the Duomo. I remember we came down and a lady tending the tourist trinkets overheard us talking in English and asked if we were Americans. "World War 3," she said. I popped into an Internet cafe to see what happened, but, on the whole, felt pretty disconnected from the whole thing. I admit I didn't know what the twin towers were. I recall I saw, the next day, a newspaper headline showing a photo of the burning tower. "Apocalisse!" But there were other things to see in Florence, so off we went.

I did, some years later, sit down and watch the major network live coverage of that morning. Easy to understand how so many people were shaken by it.

I'm kind of glad that there's somebody else who didn't know what the twin towers were. "World Trade Center" was just a name to me.

I think something close to World War 3 was what a lot of people were thinking, and it took a while for that to wear off. I know for at least a year I kept expecting another thing of that scale. There were all kinds of stories about "suitcase nukes" and such.

In the Goldwater election, the Democrats had an add saying he would start a war and there was a film of an atomic mushroom. It scared me to death.

Last night, I was at the meeting of the Memphis Chesterton Society. I am probably at least 15 to 20 years older than anyone else there (except my husband), and at least one of the young men was younger than my oldest granddaughter. Someone who is 32 said that at work, you could really tell someone's age by how well they remember 9/11. It made me laugh--to me 9/11 was about a week ago. I said that I could tell someone's age by how well they remember the JFK assassination.

It's strange to think how shocking it was to have an attack on American soil, and now, we would be upset, but not really shocked.



That was the "daisy" ad I mentioned earlier. After I mentioned it I looked for info about it, which was very easy to find. It's so famous that it has its own Wikipedia page. It's considered "an important turning point in political and advertising history." A definite turn for the worse. Funny how the Democrats still manage to get away with labeling Republicans as fearmongering etc.


When I was a teenager the end of WWII, which seemed like distant history to me, was roughly as far in the past as 9/11 is now.

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