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.
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.