Recently, while driving with a friend on the eleventh anniversary of the September 11th terrorist attacks, I noted that there seemed to be more 9/11 tributes this year than there had been in years past. It seemed as though half my friends’ facebook statuses acknowledged the attacks in one way or another, and I’d seen or heard the attacks mentioned on my television, my radio, and in my morning newspaper. I hadn’t really given much thought to the uptick in memorials and only mentioned it in passing to my friend who was driving the car. I expected him to reply with some sort of remembrance of the tragic event, or perhaps even to tell me where he had been when he first heard about the attacks. His response, given as we passed an American flag at half-mast, therefor caught me quite off guard…“Why is it,” he asked, “that we go out of our way to remember those attacks every year?”
“What do you mean, ‘why do we remember?’”, I thought to myself. Remembering 9/11 is one of those things that we just do! That date, perhaps more than any other, is etched into our collective consciousness. It has always seemed appropriate that many of the 9/11 memorials contain the words, “Never forget,” or something similar. But when I was asked why exactly it is that we refuse to forget, nothing sprang immediately to mind.
So I ended up just sitting there in silence, unable to adequately respond to the question. I was as shocked by my inability to answer as I was by the question itself. There’s no questioning that many of us commemorate the September 11th attacks, but I wonder if we’ve ever really considered why it is that we memorialize that event.
No doubt some of you reading this have a response to the question, “Why do we remember?” There are, of course, a few obvious answers: The sheer number of lives lost, the brazenness of the attack on our nation, the lasting effect the attacks have had on our economy and foreign policy…indeed, there are many aspects of the attacks that make them a significant historical event, but I’m not sure that any of them can fully explain how passionately our entire culture memorializes the attacks eleven years later. (Please note that I’m not questioning any individual memorial or commemoration. People who lived in the areas that were attacked—especially those who were personally affected—have every right to memorialize the event. I’m interested in discovering why our whole society remembers the event as if we were all there.)
Although the loss of life on that day was staggering, the death toll from that day is less than that of several American military conflicts—and who among us commemorates the anniversary of the Battle of Antietam every year? It could be argued that such a large number of civilian deaths is the key, but then surely we would memorialize April 19th as well(the date of the Oklahoma City bombings). Perhaps we commemorate the event because of our patriotic zeal—but why then isn’t December 7th, the date of another significant attack on our nation, a day of mourning and remembrance? Or if it’s the lasting geopolitical ramifications of the attacks that matter most, one is forced to ask why don’t commemorate the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall—an event that surely rivals the 9/11 attacks in terms of geopolitical influence. Admittedly, that every single one of these factors were combined into one event makes the attacks extremely memorable; it could be argued, in fact, that the attacks are the most significant historical event of the last several decades. But there are many significant historical events whose anniversaries we hardly recognize—why is it that we so passionately memorialize this one?
In 1990, a lawyer named Mike Godwin came up with the following thesis: “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving either Nazis or Hitler approaches 1.” In other words, any online discussion(regardless of topic or scope) will involve a comparison to Hitler if given enough time. While the thesis—now called Godwin’s Law—seems comical at first, it has been proven correct with stunning consistency as online discussion has become a regular part of modern life. What Godwin didn’t attempt to discover(as far as I know) is why exactly it is that so many discussions follow his law. The answer, I believe, is postmodernism.
At the most fundamental level, the defining aspect of postmodernism is relativity—right, wrong, good, bad, righteous, evil…in a postmodern society, all of these qualities are subject to perspective and opinion, rather than being inherent truths. The obvious problem with this postmodern framework is that it makes discussion and debate impossible. What one person considers evil, another might consider good—and postmodernism deliberately ignores any mechanism that might determine who is right. The result is that online debaters, robbed of the ability to call something good or bad, can only draw comparisons to events or people that are already universally agreed upon to be good or bad. So if a person compares another’s ideas to those of Hitler’s, it’s not likely because the ideas in question are actually similar to Hitler’s; instead, the person is probably just trying to convey that the ideas are bad. Hitler is just one example—on the other end of the spectrum, Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. are often points of comparison for something that is “good.” This method of relying on moral benchmarks may seem like a silly and ineffective way of debating, but it’s the only option available to those who refuse to acknowledge outright truths.
Extrapolating Godwin’s Law beyond online conversations, I think it’s fair to say that our society still recognizes and clings to people or events that demonstrate truth(good or bad). Our refusal to acknowledge truth doesn’t mean that it ceased to exist, and Godwin’s Law demonstrates the means by which we cope with truth’s continuing existence. Is it possible that our commemoration of September 11th is the result of this subconscious clinging on to truth? Having reached pretty much universal agreement in our society regarding the evil nature of the attacks, is our devotion to “never forgetting” September 11th a case of our aforementioned benchmarking?
If it is the case that our culture’s refusal to forget September 11th is driven by postmodern benchmarking, then we’ve found the answer to my friend’s question. More importantly, though, we can see that our culture is at least subconsciously still seeking truth in spite of postmodernism. Even though it may seem like society has abandoned truth in favor of experience or perspective, here we have evidence that it can only feign this abandonment—that our inherent desire for truth cannot be quelled. For the church, who has the Truth(capitalization intentional), this should be very heartening news. I’m reminded of a story I once heard about a mother whose teenage son had seemingly become a heartless degenerate. No matter what she did, she could not get her son to show compassion for others or seemingly to feel anything at all. Then, one day, she saw that he was watching the movie “Bambi” on television—the son didn’t know his mother was watching him, and he couldn’t help but shed a tear when Bambi’s mother died. As he was wiping the tear away from his eyes, his mother ran into the room and hugged him, her own eyes full of joyful tears. Just seeing that her son’s heart hadn’t completely hardened—that he was still capable of feeling—brought the mother overwhelming relief.
It may be a little corny, but do you see the analogy? It may seem like our culture has abandoned truth altogether, but they can no more abandon truth than the mother’s son could abandon compassion. Our society’s commemoration of the September 11th attacks is the proverbial “tear in their eye.” They cannot help but cling to truth and, like the mother, we’ve caught them in the act. Surely we should rejoice like the mother at this good news.