Bret Stephens: 9/11 and the Struggle for Meaning

Roundup: Talking About History

Bret Stephens is the foreign-affairs columnist of the Wall Street Journal.

December 7, 1951, came and went with scant ceremony. Harry Truman spent the day vacationing in Key West. Alben Barkley gave a speech in Honolulu in which he defended the war in Korea. Time magazine skipped the Pearl Harbor anniversary altogether: Its cover story that week was a lengthy profile of DeWitt and Lila Wallace. The Daily Double goes to the reader who can identify Barkley or the Wallaces without first turning to Google.

Compare that to the wall-to-wall attention being given to the 10th anniversary of 9/11. Leon Panetta will speak at the Washington National Cathedral on Friday. President Obama will speak there Sunday, after visits to the three memorial sites in Virginia, Pennsylvania and New York. The World Trade Center memorial plaza will open to the families of the victims. Smaller commemorations and remembrances will take place everywhere from Boston to Bagram.

And in the press, we will reprise the now-ritual debates over where-we-are-now, whither-are-we-going and what-it-all-means. Most everybody will have some sort of answer, and only the lowest common denominator of those answers will satisfy everybody.

All this is unavoidable and largely appropriate. But there is some irony in the fact that our frenzy to memorialize is inversely proportionate to our collective capacity to extract meaning from memory.

Consider the Trade Center's new memorial...

comments powered by Disqus