I probably should have posted this yesterday, but the very fact that I forgot to do it illustrates the point I want to make. The first 9/11 anniversaries were major affairs, filled with pomp, circumstance, gravity, and television cameras. Fourteen years later, the remembrance ceremonies still occurred, but they were smaller and less media saturated. Of course, for the people who were directly impacted by 9/11 — the families of those who died, rescue workers, New Yorkers who witnessed the events — the day remains as emotional as ever, but for many of us who only experienced 9/11 from watching it on TV, it has largely become just another day, much like how April 19, the day of the Oklahoma City bombing has receded into memory.
What distinguishes 9/11 from the Oklahoma City bombing is that the former had international repercussion, such as the invasion of Afghanistan, the later, more tangential invasion of Iraq, the rise of ISIS, and the generalized meltdown of authority in the Middle East, whereas the latter was simply chalked up to the actions of a random guy. While the Oklahoma City bombing delivered a mortal blow to the burgeoning “militia movement” that it has never been able to recover from, 9/11 inspired a generation of jihadist, and the highly coordinated, Hollywood style attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon anticipated the slick social media productions of ISIS. In this aspect, 9/11 was more like Pearl Harbor than the Oklahoma City bombing.
However, unlike Pearl Harbor, which ended with a decisive defeat of the Japanese less than five years after the incident in question happened, there has yet to be an “end” to 9/11, at least in the sense that Islamic terrorism shows no sign of going away. One could argue that waging war on a concept rather than a nation-state is doomed to failure (has there ever been a time in human history that was devoid of armed non-state violence?), but it does seem true that the real “legacy” of 9/11 remains unknown, even fourteen years after the event. Although the date of the attack on Pearl Harbor was declared at the time to be “a date which will live in infamy,” I doubt that very many Americans today, except for the senior citizens who actually lived through World War II, think of December 7th in those terms. To millenials, Japan is the land of anime, manga, Pocky, and karate, not a nation of mindless emperor worshippers bent on destroying freedom, as many in the so-called “Greatest Generation” believed. Even for more history-minded millenials like myself, Pearl Harbor is a long ago event preserved in black and white that has little relevance to how modern-day Japanese should be viewed.
Of course, Japan was able to completely remake itself in the postwar era as “Japan, Inc.,” whereas Afghanistan remains stuck in a state of anarchy with the Taliban waiting in the wings to resume power. Modern-day Iraq has always been somewhat of a legal fiction, held together by a succession of tyrants, so the fact that it’s disintegrating should surprise no one. If Afghanistan and Iraq are able to successfully transform themselves into functional states, that would go a long way in erasing the unpleasant memories of the early twenty-first century, but I’m not confident that this will be happening any time soon. Then again, China went through an extremely traumatic twentieth century, and managed to end on a strong note, so anything is theoretically possible.
In fifty years or so, I expect that 9/11 will be what Pearl Harbor is to millenials now. As the people who were directly affected by the event grow old and die, it simply won’t have the emotional pull that it does now. All across the United States, there are monuments to the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, World War I, and even World War II that are largely forgotten by the communities that erected them. Even the odious Lost Cause civic cult is running out of steam in the South, because there isn’t anyone currently alive that has a personal connection with the Old Confederacy (I mean in terms of living memory, not just being a GWTW groupie or a member of the Sons of the Confederacy). The September 11, 2015 news cycle was more concerned with the Donald Trump show, the European migrant crisis, the crane accident in Mecca, and Kim Davis’ one-woman fight against gay marriage than 9/11 itself. While the events of 9/11 will be remembered as unique by many Americans for years to come, there is already a new generation of post-millenials for whom September 11th is just another day.