It had to happen. The six-month anniversary (in March) of the Sept. 11 tragedy -- we now observe anniversaries at monthly, not yearly, intervals -- brought with it the announcement that a movement was forming to turn "9/11" into a national holiday. The first made-for-television movie about the event must not be far behind.
This seems to be part of a desire to "do something" tangible in commemoration beyond what President Bush suggested: namely, to go on with our routines, shop 'till we drop, and travel to vacation spots for the benefit of the struggling airline and hotel industries. Nevertheless, it's a misguided pursuit, even if understandable. More than that, it's evidence of a national preoccupation on the verge of becoming an obsession.
To begin with, such a holiday is simply inappropriate. National holidays (the Fourth of July, Labor Day, Presidents' Day) commemorate life, not death, and victory, not defeat; they are occasions for hope and affirmation rather than a morbid focusing on disaster. Pearl Harbor, the incident with which the terrorist attack is most often compared, has no national holiday to mark its yearly anniversary; we remember Dec. 7, 1941, as a day of historical significance, but we don't bring life to a halt and suspend normal activities.
Yet, that is exactly what a large number of Americans want to do with respect to Sept. 11, 2001, if a recent CNN poll is to be believed. Nearly half (48%) favor making the day of the hijackings a full-fledged holiday with all the trappings. An equal number are presently opposed, eloquent testimony to their common sense, but the fact that close to a majority support the holiday initiative, before the inevitable emotional appeals to patriotism have even begun, suggests the trauma of the attack has had a disproportionate impact on the public mind.
Lets try to put what happened on Sept. 11 in some perspective. Intending no disrespect to the victims, whom it is perfectly appropriate to mourn and remember, it needs to be said that, in the broad sweep of our national experience, their tragic deaths were not the worst thing to have ever happened to the United States. You might not believe this after listening to the hyperbolic assertions that Sept. 11 was the most horrible day in American history, that we've never before experienced such losses on our own soil, that we'll never be the same, and that our lives have changed forever.
Time out! This semi-hysterical reaction owes a lot to the overblown and unrelenting media attention to the event and its aftermath, which (in a take-off on military jargon) has been satirically labeled "Operation Enduring Coverage." For six months, it's been all 9/11, all the time -- except when bombing campaigns in Afghanistan intervene. We need to step back and evaluate the assaults on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon more dispassionately in the light of history.
The loss of life, first of all, did not approach domestic war-related losses suffered by other generations of Americans, either proportionately or in raw numbers. The latest count of fatalities from Sept. 11 places the actual total victims at roughly 3,000, around 2,800 at "Ground Zero" in Manhattan -- nowhere near the 5,000 to 6,000 originally estimated. This compares to the 7,000 Americans, Northerners and Southerners, who died during the horrific, three-day Civil War battle of Gettysburg (July 1-3, 1863) and the nearly 5,000 who perished in the battle of Antietam (September 17, 1862) on that war's single bloodiest day.
The number killed last fall in New York and Washington does slightly exceed the 2,500 US servicemen who died when Pearl Harbor was bombed, but the casualties resulting from the Japanese attack were proportionately much greater in a country of 132 million than those produced by the recent terrorist atrocity were in a nation whose population has since doubled to 275 million. Moreover, Pearl Harbor marked the beginning of a military conflict that (unlike the present set-to against ragtag Third World terrorists) the United States was by no means guaranteed of winning, which accentuated its psychological impact immeasurably. And just imagine the harrowing affect of the aforementioned Civil War losses on a fledgling country of just 31 million; 9/11 pales by comparison.
Still, today's mainstream media, in their zeal to maximize the news value of Sept. 11 and, it must be added, in response to their perceived journalistic duty, pick at it constantly like a dog worrying a bone and consequently exaggerate its true scope and significance. They are abetted in this obsessive single-mindedness by the nation's political elite, who have shown limited ability to focus on anything else besides 9/11 and the response to it.
To a large extent, this is a function of the target sites chosen by al-Qaeda: New York, the national media center, and Washington, D.C., the national political center. It's hard to imagine comparable blanket coverage and concentrated focus, had the hijacked planes crashed into buildings in, say, Chicago, Seattle, or Phoenix. The terrorists knew exactly what they were doing to achieve maximum effect: They struck at our two most self-conscious and self-absorbed population centers. The American media and political establishments are reacting, almost provincially, to something that happened in their own backyards -- in effect, to them.
So, let's reconsider the knee-jerk proposal to turn our latest national tragedy into a national holiday. National holidays, after all, are quickly converted from their original reasons for being into occasions for good times, family vacations, and shopping excursions to the nearest mall or car dealership. Are we going to have commercial sales promotions in honor of the World Trade Center? That would be an insult rather than a commemoration. We should grieve, by all means, and erect proper monuments, and then let it go for the sake of the nation's mental and emotional well-being.
Wayne O'Leary is a writer in Orono, Maine.