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It’s time to forget

David Colborne
David Colborne
Opinion
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It is my sincerest hope that, with its twentieth anniversary behind us, the insufferable annual ritual of navel-gazing about 9/11 can finally, mercifully end.

I don’t say this to disrespect those who lost their lives in Flight 93, in the Pentagon, or in the World Trade Center buildings, nor to disrespect the friends and family members of those individuals who still mourn their loss two decades later. On the contrary — there is little more routinely disrespectful than exhuming the spirits of long-dead first responders, office workers, and domestic travelers and force-marching their memories through whatever political and social pathologies we face each and every year. “Osama bin Laden was motivated by woke identitarian ideology,” for example, is a thesis which can only be defended in a society which sees the past as an inexhaustible source of conscriptable memories, each of whom can be thrown against every breach of cultural disagreement, the memory of each long-dead individual a soldier deployable by any columnist losing a stupid argument on some social media platform somewhere.

It’s past time for us to place the tragedy of 9/11 into perspective and move on. We’ve done it before.

***

Twenty years after June 28, 1914, when Gavrilo Princip assassinated the Austrian Archduke and lit the match that ultimately led to the first World War — which led to the deaths of tens of millions, including over 100,000 Americans — the world was lost to the economic immiseration of the Great Depression and the first sparks of violence which would ultimately lead to the second World War.

In Nevada, the anniversary passed with little notice.

A story in the Reno Evening Gazette (one of two newspapers which ultimately merged to become the Reno Gazette-Journal) about a spate of Nazi-instigated terrorist bombings in Austria mentioned the anniversary of the archduke’s assassination in passing. A column in the Nevada State Journal (the other newspaper that merged to become part of the Reno Gazette-Journal), meanwhile, mentioned the anniversary to highlight how long Europe had been in turmoil. A month after the anniversary, one final story in the Nevada State Journal speculated about whether the assassination of Austrian Chancellor Engelbert Dollfuss, a pro-independence fascist, by Austrian Nazis, who favored Austrian unification with Germany, would lead to war the same way the assassination of the Archduke led to the first World War.

It did not. Benito Mussolini, no friend to Hitler just yet, supported Dollfuss’ government against the Nazis. The Nazis, meanwhile, had to wait another four years before they could annex Austria and trigger the series of events which would ultimately lead to the production of The Sound of Music (among other, considerably less favorable things).

In the end, the triggering event behind the most destructive war humanity had known up to that point became little more than a curious footnote, a piece of trivia to dust off whenever another politically motivated assassination occurred in Europe.

What was not a footnote, however, was Richard Kirman, Sr.’s gubernatorial run, which officially began on July 27, 1934. Amusingly enough, he was “drafted” by 12 Reno Democrats, who submitted his name as a gubernatorial candidate on his behalf the previous day — at the time, if 10 or more voters submitted a petition nominating an individual as a candidate for public office, said individual would be nominated, provided they formally accepted being “drafted” within five days.

Kirman accepted the nomination. Six months later, he began his only term as governor. During his term, the Nevada State Park system was born.

***

Twenty years after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor — a date which, you may have heard, lived in infamy — Americans were a bit more preoccupied with the Cold War growing increasingly hot than they were with the emerald anniversary of the surprise attack. Fidel Castro’s communist revolution in Cuba was complete. The Bay of Pigs invasion, which was supposed to overthrow Castro’s revolution, failed utterly. East Germany finished construction of the Berlin Wall, ostensibly cutting West Berlin off from the world (in practice, it cut East Germans off from West Berlin, which was the actual motivation behind the wall’s construction). 

Even so, this twentieth anniversary was remembered with a bit more care and attention than the anniversary of the archduke’s assassination. The Reno Evening Gazette commemorated the twentieth anniversary of the attack with a front page article about a memorial service in Pearl Harbor (“In this missile and thermonuclear age, it would be foolhardy indeed to assume that surprise attack will never be a possibility”), a back page article describing the attack itself, and two articles remembering the USS Nevada (which was sunk in the battle, salvaged, redeployed, and finally retired as a radioactive metaphor — our military dropped two nuclear bombs on it, just as it would drop dozens more on Nevada’s deserts).

The Reno Evening Gazette also published two op-eds about the anniversary, both of which attempted to contextualize the anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack with the seeming inevitability of thermonuclear war 20 years thence. One, written by Stan Delaplane, compared a recent draft protest with similar draft protests preceding the attack on Pearl Harbor. The other, demonstrating the farsightedness and good taste op-ed columnists are notoriously (in-)famous for, declared Americans were blinded to the immediacy of war by the nation’s leaders before Pearl Harbor — but that wasn’t going to happen again:

But today, the American people are not lulled into a false sense of security, like that induced by those in Washington 20 years ago who talked publicly of peace, yet knew privately that this country was plunging headlong into global war. The lesson of Pearl Harbor is vividly remembered.

That column, by the way, was published next to another column titled, “There’s a Hidden Reason Why America Does Not Resume Atomic Tests in Air” — the reason, it seems, was the Soviets were manipulating the United Nations into prohibiting above-ground nuclear testing and we didn’t have “the nerve to shoot our way out.” 

***

Look, I don’t know how anyone or anything lived through the 1960s. From what I’ve gathered talking to those who actually lived through it all, neither does anyone else. Personally, I suspect we narrowly avoided extinction because op-ed columnists weren’t allowed near positions of actual power and responsibility then, either.

***

Two decades after the event that started the first World War, and two decades after the event that started America’s formal involvement in the second World War, time, history and memory moved on.

There were bigger problems to worry about in 1934 than the death of a long-shattered empire’s archduke. The unemployment rate in the United States was over 20 percent. Japan invaded and occupied Manchuria in northeast China. Hitler solidified dictatorial control over Germany. The Nazis opened and began to industrialize their first concentration camps. What did the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand mean to the people of 1934? What could the assassination mean to anyone 20 years later?

Knowing about the circumstances of Gavrilo Princip’s assassination of Franz Ferdinand provided no direct insight to the people facing the catastrophes of the 1930s. In the rare moment when insights derived from the event were applied to the problems of the day, the results were always incorrect because, though the assassination was the first step to the horrors of the first World War, it was not the war’s cause. A political assassination might have started one world war, but that didn’t mean each subsequent political assassination would start another.

There were also bigger problems to worry about in 1961 than the destruction of the suddenly obsolete battleships that constituted the United States’ Pacific Fleet. Nuclear war — a promise of total death and destruction — seemed poised to break out at any moment. The Cuban Missile Crisis, which broke out the following year, would compel many Americans to build underground shelters in their backyards (due, in no small part, to our nation’s inability to efficiently evacuate our population centers, something we still struggle with during hurricane or wildfire season) — in retrospect, that would prove to be the closest the Cold War ever came to escalating into full-scale nuclear war. Meanwhile, the Strategic Hamlet Program — the forced resettlement of rural Vietnamese into “protected hamlets” by the South Vietnamese to combat Viet Cong infiltration in the countryside — had begun. It wasn’t going well.

Twenty years after 9/11, yes, there are still lessons to learn, just as there are lessons to learn from any moment in history, but it’s not 2001, or 1961, or 1941, or 1934, or 1914 anymore. Modern problems, as the meme goes, require modern solutions. 

But we’re not learning them because we’re not remembering — we’re reminiscing

Despite the subsequent body count incurred from invading Afghanistan and Iraq, despite the dramatic increase in the size and scope of the surveillance state, despite all but one member of Congress voting to cut the White House a blank check which still, to this very day, authorizes the president to secretly invade foreign countries, 9/11 isn’t our Pearl Harbor, our sinking of the Lusitania, our assassination of an archduke, our assault on Fort Sumter, nor even our Battle of Lexington. The people who lived through Pearl Harbor had another four years of bloody history to remember — D-Day, the Battle of the Bulge, Iwo Jima, Hiroshima, Nagasaki. The people who lived through the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand had four years of bloody history to remember, too — the Somme, Verdun, the Isonzo, Belleau Wood.

Nobody needed to Never Forget the Great Depression or the world wars. The real challenge, in fact, was forgetting them enough to move on, to live a life beyond tragedy and pain despite all of the shared suffering.

No, 9/11 is our JFK assassination.

It’s our shared moment when we all remember where we were when capital-H History Happened on television. It’s our moment where we Remember When it happened, what we were watching when the news came on, and who we shared the experience with. It’s our time to ramble about how Things Changed, were Never The Same, and so on — partially because things did, indeed change, but also partly because we’re older now and, on a personal level, we’re not the same people we were two decades ago.

Sure, yes, we care about the victims, inasmuch as anyone cared about Jackie and their kids after Kennedy’s assassination (remember when Jackie’s post-assassination dating life was tabloid fodder?), but it’s really all about us. It’s about our narcissism and our desire to connect with something bigger than us, our need to be a part of a defining moment that will outlive us. Which would all be fine if we treated it like the JFK assassination — if we treated it as an unfortunate tragedy in history, occasionally argued with each other about the various conspiracy theories surrounding the event, and then rambled on about Woodstock and the moon landing when we were tired of being maudlin.

But we don’t. We “Never Forget,” we repaint our football fields, then we take our shoes off at the airport and launch a drone against some civilians in Kabul.

Well, I have good news for everyone. For the past year and a half, we’ve once again all been part of shared history. We can reminisce together about when the casinos closed and geese walked The Strip. We can talk about where we were when we learned we were working from home — or, if you were one of the three Nevadans laid off, when you learned you no longer had a job. Thanks to hundreds of thousands of Americans who have died from the pandemic, including at least two 9/11s worth of Nevadans, most of us know someone with a direct connection to the fallen. We can even debate conspiracy theories over Thanksgiving dinner, only instead of arguing about whether jet fuel melts steel beams, we can instead argue over COVID-19’s origin and the effectiveness of vaccines.

We have, in other words, something else to talk about. Perhaps 20 years from now we’ll “Never Forget” March 2020. 

I rather doubt we will, though. It’s frankly much more fun to be nostalgic about other people’s suffering than it is to be endlessly reminded of our own.

David Colborne was active in the Libertarian Party for two decades. During that time, he blogged intermittently on his personal blog, ran for office twice as a Libertarian candidate, and served on the Executive Committee for his state and county Libertarian Party chapters. He is now an IT manager, a registered non-partisan voter, and the father of two sons. You can follow him on Twitter @DavidColborne or email him at [email protected].  

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