Victorians Immense




It's more than likely that 'September 11, 2001' will figure prominently in lists of dates for the foreseeable future and beyond. Its meaning as shorthand and symbol will be argued and reargued, its implications reassessed. That is what dates are for: to reappraise. As long as there's something called 'history,' the year 1066 is bound to be associated with the Norman Conquest of England and 1776 with the American Declaration of Independence (although how many Americans recognize 1783 as the year in which that independence was recognized, or 1789 as the year in which the United States of Americas as we know it began?). The date of the bombing of Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941, is actually the last in a constellation of dates opening the second half of The Great War; May 28, 1940, the date of Churchill's victory in Britain's war cabinet, signaling determination to 'take a stand' against Germany, is, from the baseball-card standpoint that dates inevitably invite, just as important. The date of the terrorist attacks upon the World Trade Center in New York and upon the Pentagon in Washington stands, for the moment, alone; and let us hope that nothing following in the train of the attacks marks the date of something worse.

Let's also hope - why not? - that the simple ability to remember the World Trade Center towers - what they looked like not only in the New York skyline but in countless photographs and abstractions - will teach an effortless lesson in the foundation of history, which is of course that things were once different from what they are now. Ever since the end of World War II, history has been very much 'one damn thing after another,' and while certain dates do stand forth in an American perspective - the assassination of President Kennedy and the resignation of President Nixon - neither of the events shorthanded by these dates possesses world-historical stature. Of all postwar dates, only July 20, 1969, that of the first moon landing, really seems to have universal interest, but, like Pearl Harbor's date, it belongs to a list of related dates bearing on flight and space exploration.

Until September 11, 2001, there were two very tall towers at the lower end of Manhattan Island. The next day, they were gone, having collapsed almost as neatly as if they'd been professionally demolished (neither was knocked over by collision). Now, that's something to hold on to, a fact that's it's all to easy to get the mind round. Nothing will ever justify the crime that destroyed the towers - and I am confident that whatever else is decided about our world, no society will ever regard the attacks with complaisance - but understanding that one's simple sense of before-and-after breathes the spirit of history, inevitable history, is perhaps the best way of honoring its victims. (October 2001)

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