One year later, coherence evades us

John Troyer

I do not really know what I can say about the events one year ago. Most of my Daily column space last year surrounded events and adverse reactions to Sept. 11, 2001, and I believe my case was made at that time. My inability to find any words illustrating what has taken place over the last year has little to do with cynicism or ambivalence, but a sincere confusion over how to even begin articulating the past year. I simply do not believe any large-scale intellectual coherence has settled upon America to really grapple with all of the events over the last 365 days.

Instead, we Americans have hundreds of new Sept. 11, 2001, coffee table books to choose from, television specials to watch and various kinds of ceremonies to attend. In looking over the various consumer options, I sided with a famous refrain heard on Wall Street many years ago: I would prefer not to.

An all-too-easy satirical essay could be written regarding the rapid speed at which products have emerged for sale exactly one year since Sept. 11. I would prefer not to write that column, since I do not find much humor or empathy in book after book filled with glossy photos showing me the multiple-choice options for memories. Everybody has a story about where they were last September. The first line of Frank Rich’s column in the New York Times on Aug. 31 summed up my thoughts on the topic: “There are eight million 9/11 stories in the Naked City. Be grateful I will spare you mine.”

Instead of thinking about where I was on Sept. 11, 2001, I prefer to think about where I will be tomorrow. It will be Sept. 11, 2002, and I know I will be standing in front of a classroom teaching, the only productive act I can do to somehow encourage people to critically think about and discuss last year’s events. I mention this for an important reason: While some academics work as classroom instructors because they believe they have the answers to everything, I’ve recognized that teaching after Sept. 11 made me work harder than ever to fulfill the duties of my job.

I remember how I stood before a classroom of dazed students on the morning of Sept. 12, 2001, and told them all I had no idea what to say. In truth, I had prepared a series of statements I wanted to make as a way of encouraging discussion among the students but at the instant class began I forgot everything I had written down. In that moment of confusion, with an entire classroom watching, I remember saying two things: “I’m at a complete loss to say anything right now.” And, “It is in these moments like we are experiencing today that understanding how history is written becomes so important. Remember everything you can.”

One year later, I believe everyone is trying to remember some things, maybe even everything, to create some kind of rhetorical closure. Yet, I am not convinced closure of any kind is possible with any historical writing. By default, not knowing what to say from time to time may be the only appropriate response. I firmly believe that in the coming years, September will become a blurry memory for many Americans, occasionally jarred by the images we all have seen and I need not mention.

I don’t believe life for the vast majority of Americans is different today than it was on Sept. 10, 2001, nor do I think any sweeping change has taken place to make the United States a post-Sept. 11 population or for any coherence to settle upon us. Perhaps, in time, I will be proven wrong on that point, or, more likely, many people will forget a reason ever existed to remember a post-Sept. 11 anything.


John Troyer welcomes comments at [email protected]. Send comments to [email protected].