Today is the second Monday in September. It’s the 254th day of the year. It’s also the day on which Christopher Brian Bridges, the rapper and actor better known as Ludacris, celebrates his 40th birthday.
But in the United States and the rest of the industrialized world, this is 9/11, the 16th anniversary of the terror attacks in 2001 that wrenched our nation from its moorings and sent it tumbling into space. And it would be ludicrous to view today in any other context: The horrors of the event still haunt us, its heroes still ennoble us.
For most adult Americans, 9/11 is a date that will live in infamy, just as Franklin D. Roosevelt said Dec. 7, 1941, would.
And for decades, Dec. 7 did live in the memories and fears and worldviews of the men and women who came of age when the world was at war.
Even during the 1990s, old men would call or write The Hartford Courant, my employer at the time, to complain that the newspaper hadn’t done enough to commemorate the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, one of the defining events of their lives and one of the defining events in American history.
To those making the complaints, it was as if the younger generation, my generation, didn’t understand the evil that Japan, Germany and Italy had unleashed upon the world during World War II, the evil the elders fought with such courage and determination.
When society no longer appears to be defined by the events of your past, your generation is well on the way to getting old and being forgotten and discarded. During the 1990s, the World War II generation wasn’t ready to be tossed aside. No generation is.
Still, by the 1990s, the World War II generation’s triumph over the Axis powers had faded and yellowed in the national memory album. Dec. 7, 1941, just like Oct. 29, 1929 — the date the U.S. stock market crashed, signaling the Great Depression — had become an entry in the history books for baby boomers and their children.
It seems unlikely now, but something similar will happen with 9/11. If we are diligent and lucky, future generations will think of 9/11, if it is thought of at all, as the violence that came before peace. Or, perhaps more chilling, a new date, with its own scarlet letters and haunting numbers, will displace 9/11 and define how a future generation will look at the world.
Next year, the nation’s baby boomers in their 60s and early 70s, in one of their last hurrahs, will mark the 50th anniversary of 1968, a year of trauma and turmoil, a year unlike any other to those who lived through it. Fifty years from now, some millennials will look at 2017 the same way.
Each generation yields to the conceit and the deception that it has lived through the best and worst of times. It imagines a past, its tragedies and triumphs, that can be packed in a box and stored in society’s attic.
But William Faulkner knew that the past lay at the foundation of the present: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Then-Sen. Barack Obama made reference to those words in his 2008 “A More Perfect Union” speech: “We do not need to recite here the history of racial injustice in this country. But we do need to remind ourselves that so many of the disparities that exist between the African-American community and the larger American community today can be traced directly to inequalities passed on from an earlier generation that suffered under the brutal legacy of slavery and Jim Crow.”
Faulkner and Obama’s words echoed anew when a car plowed into Heather Heyer in Charlottesville, Virginia, last month, making her a 21st-century victim of the 19th-century Civil War.
As Faulkner knew and Obama understood, current events are deeply rooted in the past: a past of cries and whispers, a past of punishing silences, a past that haunts and shapes us on 9/11 from beyond the grave, if we let it.