Jeff O'Handley

The Doubting Writer Finds His Voice

Insensitivity

Years ago, when I lived here…

…we received permission to throw a party. We sat down to plan and arrived at the only weekend date between Thanksgiving and Christmas that was available. That day turned out to be December 7, Pearl Harbor Day, which commemorates those who died in the Japanese attack in 1941.

The people I lived and worked with at the big house there were all shaped to a certain extent by World War II. We all had relatives who fought in the war or grew up during it. My father was 5 when Pearl Harbor was attacked. Two of my uncles that I was close to served in the US Navy; so did my grandfather. Another uncle flew combat missions in the Army Air Corps. I have three close friends whose fathers fought across France and Italy against the Germans. And, it turns out, my future father-in-law (though I did not know him at the time) was a Pearl Harbor survivor.

We knew our history, and we knew, at least on an intellectual level, the horror of Pearl Harbor. It did not stop us from capitalizing on the day. The invitations we sent out said “Come and get bombed at our Pearl Harbor Day party.” We decorated the hall with cutout airplanes and falling bombs on the walls. No one complained. If they had, we might have told them:


There was no harm in it, as far as we could tell. We were young, and full of the insensitivity and tactlessness that young people can be famous for. The party was a blast, and that house was every bit as good for a party as you might imagine.

Flash forward 20-something years. On Friday, while Rapi-scrolling (TM) through endless images on Facebook of the Twin Towers intact and the Twin Towers burning; of dust-covered firemen, and flags tattered and whole; a post from my cousin caught my eye. It showed the Twin Towers, with the Statue of Liberty in the background. But what really got my attention were the words. Said my cousin:

“I was surprised, angered, and disappointed when somebody called out ‘Happy Remembrance Day!’ this morning. Before I could stop myself I blurted out ‘What’s happy about it?’ Later on, driving through [town name redacted for privacy] I saw an electronic billboard that was listing all the victims 9/11 by name. Most appropriate.”

Honestly, I had no idea what Remembrance Day was, or even if it was. In looking it up, I came across something I did not know: in December, 2001, Congress declared September 11 to be Patriot Day (not to be confused with Patriots’ Day in Massachusetts, which commemorates the Battles of Lexington and Concord in 1775). Furthermore, each year since 2009 President Obama has signed a proclamation declaring September 11 as “Patriot Day and National Day of Service and Remembrance.” I guess I’m just not up on these things.

September 11 was a world-changing day, our generation’s Pearl Harbor, and needs remembrance. Ironically, as my cousin’s experience indicates, giving it an official designation on a calendar may actually make people think about it less. After a while, it just becomes another blip on the calendar, like National Boss Day or National Frozen Food Day–or, worse yet, a day that everyone looks forward to because they get the day off work and stores are having sales. I can envision a cheesy animation of the Twin Towers falling while a Crazy Eddie-style announcer shouts, “Our prices are COMING DOWN!”

A story I heard on NPR on Friday afternoon made a surprising point. “9/11 is already ancient history on some level,” said Alice Greenwald, director of the National September 11 Memorial Museum. The story noted that approximately 25% of Americans now living either weren’t born yet on September 11, 2001, or were too young to remember it. Time marches on. And I suppose I have to get used to the idea that there will be those in the near future making jokes about September 11 because the impacts to them will not seem visible. It doesn’t make them bad or wrong or stupid–it just makes them young, without the same frame of reference and emotional response that those of us who lived through it have. I note that for myself, my own level of respect and reflection for Pearl Harbor Day, Veterans’ Day and Memorial Day has increased over the years; I suspect it will for them, too.

4 Responses

  1. I agree. As we get older, the stories from those who lived through the horrors becomes more real, more important. I'm glad we continue to tell the stories.

  2. We are who we are because of where we were when … Sadly 9/11 isn't something they experienced the same way we did, the same way my parents (though kids) experienced Pearl Harbor. It really is true: you had to be there.

  3. I love that old house! I don't think 9/11 will ever be forgotten or made fun of. But I'm old and remember it well. The difference for me is that Pearl Harbor was a military base attacked by a country we were at war with (or would have been if the US gov't didn't keep the Japanese diplomat waiting). It would be a lot different if the Japanese had bombed San Francisco — or New York. Hitting a soft target is never permissible. It's utterly shocking on every level, and I think it always will be. Although as I see hate-speak rise everywhere, I guess intolerance, ignorance, and lack of sympathy are becoming more widespread. 🙁

  4. Thanks, everyone.

    Lexa, hitting soft targets is neither honorable nor permissible, but I fear this is the way of the world. Sadly, it justifies the intolerance, ignorance and hate that I see displayed on my Facebook feed, in news story comment threads, and at Republican debates (maybe Democratic ones, too; we'll see when we actually have one).

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