When words aren’t good enough, we just need a date.

Once again, the same as this day one year ago, I did not plan or expect to be writing anything to mark the anniversary of terrorist attacks. However, an idea had been planted and, without my realizing it until I got home on Monday night, it grew into something bigger that demanded the light.

A few days ago on her Facebook page, an old friend of mine expressed her surprise when she realized the official name that had been assigned to the calendar date of September 11: Patriot Day. Her first instinct was to be annoyed. “WTF is Patriot Day? A sugar coated version of a terrorist attack?” she asked.

She’s not the only one to be either surprised or annoyed at the name change.

Across the Internet for the past 11 years, there have been people complaining about the name chosen, and not just because there already is a Patriots’ Day in Massachusetts. Many complained that the use of the name was overly political, dishonoring those who died by exploiting the pain of that day simply to gain a desirable image.

And the term “patriot” certainly is loaded. I saw comments that expressed how Patriot Day reminds them of the Patriot Act, a piece of legislation that many feel has eroded our hard-fought civil liberties. Others complained that the day now shares a name with the Patriot missiles and would always remind us of only the violence, the moment of impact.

An additional complaint is that naming the day “Patriot Day” would make it all too easy for us to forget what actually happened and treat it just like any other “Day” on the calendar, especially if it were to be designated as a national day. Sure, there are some who remember why we celebrate Labor Day or Memorial Day, but how many more of us just think of it as a long holiday weekend? How could we even consider making this a “holiday?”

By far, the most common objection was that the concept of patriotism is completely unconnected to the events of that horrible day. This has been a hot-button issue for longer than I can remember. “What is a patriot, anyway?” they ask. Do I have to give my life for my country to be considered a patriot? Or maybe it’s enough if a family member is in the military or in public service. Let’s say neither I nor anyone I know has died in combat, committed our lives to public service, or even volunteered on Election Day. Can I still be a patriot? Do I have to wear the flag pin? Does it make me unpatriotic if I have a problem with the official name of Patriot Day?

From the beginning, we were all referring to “the events of 9/11” which then became simplified to “9/11.” The name Patriot Day became official on December 18th, 2001 when it was signed into law by President Bush, who was required to issue a new proclamation of the name each year. Nearly a year later, on September 5th, 2002, the President issued his first proclamation declaring that the September 11, 2002 would be officially known as Patriot Day.

Here is the second proclamation from 2003:

“Two years ago, more than 3,000 innocent people lost their lives when a calm September morning was shattered by terrorists driven by hatred and destruction.

On that day, and in its aftermath, we saw the greatness of America in the bravery of victims; in the heroism of first responders who laid down their lives to save others; in the compassion of people who stepped forward to help those they had never met; and in the generosity of millions of Americans who enriched our country with acts of service and kindness.

Since that day, we have seen the greatness of America further demonstrated in the courage of our brave men and women in uniform who have served and sacrificed in Afghanistan, in Iraq, and around the world to advance freedom and prevent terrorist attacks on America.

As we remember September 11, 2001, we reaffirm the vows made in the earliest hours of our grief and anger. As liberty’s home and defender, America will not tire, will not falter, and will not fail in fighting for the safety and security of the American people and a world free from terrorism. We will continue to bring our enemies to justice or bring justice to them. This Patriot Day, we hold steady to this task.”

Eleven years later, however, we still insist on saying 9/11 or a variant thereof.

It seems to me that all of the objections – diverse as they are – center around the idea that “Patriot Day” omits one crucial element: the people. The proclamation starts by focusing on the individuals and their actions, their compassion. However, it then goes on to make them faceless and abstract by insisting that we associate that day with the aftermath, with military retaliation, and the ongoing us-against-them “War on Terror.”

Our insistence on saying “9/11” suggests that it’s important to remember that exact day and what we all felt and experienced. We don’t want to forget because in doing so, we fail to honor the people who died so unfairly, so randomly. The manner of their deaths dishonored them enough. Forgetting them would be insulting.

We also deserve to honor our own painful memories that we all carry, no matter where we were. We didn’t need to be there or lose a loved one in the attack to have been profoundly affected by it.

In turn, the name “Patriot Day” offends us because it suggests we instead focus on national ideals or political abstractions. There is certainly a time and a place for love of one’s country, but it doesn’t feel right to focus on it so heavily on this particular anniversary. After all, apart from some notable exceptions, the world also mourned on that day, and it had nothing to do with national pride. It had to do with human compassion.

One World Trade Center. Its former name, the Freedom Tower, was also rejected. (Photo courtesy of Pete Labrozzi via flickr)

I can’t say for anyone else, but I know for sure that I didn’t make any “vows…in the earliest hours of [my] grief and anger.” I didn’t think of retribution or homeland security or justice. I thought of my family, of my relief that my brother wasn’t working on site one block south of the Towers.  I mourned for the victims and the pain their families were feeling. I felt in awe of the first responders and their bravery and ached at the tragedy of their deaths.

Today, I still won’t be thinking of politics or flag-waving patriotism. I also won’t spend the day re-experiencing the numbing shock, or the nausea and the trembling knees I felt that left me barely able to stand for hours. Instead, I’ll be thinking of One World Trade Center rising above the skyline of Manhattan, overlooking the footprints of the fallen Towers. It won’t be a symbol of my love of New York or of America. Instead, I will look to it as a testament to the hope and strength of the human spirit that goes far and beyond any nation’s boundaries.

12 thoughts on “When words aren’t good enough, we just need a date.

    • Thanks for remembering that and posting the link, Georgette. Eleven years feels so long ago, and at the same time, just a drop in the bucket. I think it’s important to remember the ‘before’ times. I don’t think it’s possible to go back to our (relative) innocence – and maybe we shouldn’t – but I don’t think we should forget ideals or work to find a way to still maintain those ideals in the ‘after’ times.

  1. Well, color me clueless. While driving the boys to school today, I asked them if they knew what day it was. Joe said, “It’s Patriot’s Day.” I brushed him off and said, “Patriot’s Day? No. It’s not Patriot’s Day.”
    I guess I’ve been living under a rock, because this is new to me. Why on earth would they come up with ‘Patriot’s Day’? (rhetorical question) For me, you nailed it on the head when you wrote, “Our insistence on saying “9/11″ suggests that it’s important to remember that exact day and what we all felt and experienced. We don’t want to forget because in doing so, we fail to honor the people who died so unfairly, so randomly. The manner of their deaths dishonored them enough. Forgetting them would be insulting.”
    It IS about that exact day – the exact minutes – exactly.
    The calendar can have whatever it has written on the day – but to me and to my family, it will forever be 9/11. And, I pray the world could come together again like it did then, without the death and destruction. Why do buildings need to fall for people to stop and listen? (again, rhetorical question)

    • Sorry for the late reply.

      I kind of knew about the Patriot Day name but it was always in the very far recesses of my mind. I hated it the first time I heard it and knew I’d never use it, so I duly ignored any memory or reference to it.

      Ah, your rhetorical question…why does only tragedy get our attention? If only we could come up with an answer, a real answer.

  2. Excellent post, Leonore! I don’t have an actual physical calendar in my house, and like Lenore Diane, I must be living under a rock, because I had no idea that 9/11 was named Patriot Day. I hate it! In part, because the word patriot has come to sound so “Bush-ish” (my newly created word), and because the word patriot conjures such “war-ish” (my other created word for the day) images. 9/11 is a day to honor the 3,000 + innocent people who died while going about their normal business of living. Perhaps the name Patriot Day will fit 100 years from now when none of us who, in one way or another, experienced that day are around to remember the pure emotion of it.

    • Apologies to you as well for my late reply!

      Honestly, I hope that “Patriot Day” never really gains ground and it will always be remembered as 9/11 or September 11, just as Pearl Harbor is still referred to as such. I think people 100 years from now will have even less of a chance to understand that day if they are given nothing but the vague “Patriot Day” name. But regardless of what it’s called, once the experience of 9/11 is out of living memory, it’s not going to have its emotional force for most people, so it probably won’t matter what name its given. Even Pearl Harbor doesn’t evoke as powerful emotions as it once did, even within my lifetime. Not on a wider scale, anyway. I’m sure there are still families who were more directly affected by Pearl Harbor or WW2, but when kids or grandkids are also gone, Pearl Harbor, the Holocaust, 9/11…these just become things in a history book.

      (Love your new words!)

  3. As always great post, Leonore! Your words, “I did not plan or expect to be writing anything to mark the anniversary of terrorist attacks,” certainly resonated with me! However, I DID expect to be referring to the terrorist attacks in my post on Blogger, as well as my Facebook entry for The Last Leaf Gardner, because I did not know how I could refer to anything else on the solemn anniversary. My posting schedule on Blogger is Mondays and Fridays, so on Monday the Tenth, I was unsure about what to post, since the anniversary was the following day. Moreover, on that day, I had a fill-in gig on Barclay and Church Street, which as you know, is a “stone’s throw” away from the World Trade Center Site. As I came up the subway stairs on Monday the Tenth, I confess that I did not reflect on the new One Word Trade Center, “rising above the skyline of Manhattan, overlooking the footprints of the fallen Towers,” instead, I thought of how close I came to working on the 83rd Floor of the former One World Trade Center, just a few weeks prior to the attacks! I tried to weave this fact into my Monday, September the Tenth entry on Blogger.

    In any event, while my Blogger schedule is Mondays and Fridays, I do “check in” on Tuesdays, as I “carry” a feature called “If it’s Tuesday, it must be tumblr . . . “. In this “feature” I offer a short blurb, and then I “send” my readers off to tumblr. Since the anniversary of the Nine Eleven attacks was on a Tuesday this year, I was unsure how to include the tragedy in my Blogger entry before referring folks to tumblr; and yet, I did not want to ignore the relevance of the day, so I came up with something that touched on subjects I’ve written about the tragedy in prior years. My 9-11-12 posting on The Last Leaf Gardener’s Facebook Page was more problematic. It is a page which gives voice to things living in a garden, and while my garden was lush and full of life this past Tuesday morning, I was hesitant to post an image of vibrant life. I feared it might not be respectful to those who lost their lives on that fateful day, and also it might be disrespectful to those near and dear to them.

    But, I did go ahead and post an image of my garden flourishing because someone who died in the Nine Eleven attacks on the Twin Towers, once had a bird’s eye view of my garden. After he died, his apartment remained empty for a long period time, but, a huge American Flag was hung across his windows and remained there until new folks moved into his place. Still, I had reservations posting garden related content on the solemn anniversary. Fortunately, the comments on my 9-11-12 FB posting helped me to realize how healing my garden can be for others as indicated in this quote from a TLLG FB follower, “What a wonderful gift that a garden grows (where) once such pain and loss and tragedy in this city occurred, rebirth.”

    This comment, Leonore, reminds me of your thoughts of “when you look at the new One World Trade Center, you will I will look to it as a testament to the hope and strength of the human spirit that goes far and beyond any nation’s boundaries.”

    Thanks again for a great post!

    • It sounds odd, but I think your garden is a welcome reminder of life that would certainly be welcome on 9-11 anniversaries. I say it sounds odd because Manhattan is teeming with life – I mean, the city is so dynamic and vigorous. But there is a whole hell of a lot of concrete and steel. I don’t know if everyone is like this, but I feel like I need to be reminded of nature to really feel connected to a bigger concept of ‘life’, and so seeing that patch of green in the midst of all the buildings would be such a welcome sight to me. It helps put things in perspective, and that helps a person deal with tragedy.

      As I’m sure I’ve mentioned to you before, I so admire your talent in working with plants because I’m so utterly hopeless with them. I’m glad there are folks in the city who are able to bring a little bit of nature into the city :)

      And so sorry for the long delay in commenting! Memory is a fickle mistress and she’s not afraid to fail us at any given moment :)

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