Fear and Performance, Sixteen Years Later

Even aside from the obvious skyline changes, the scars are still visible in this city, if you know where to look.

My law school was famously near Anderson Cooper’s residence, a converted firehouse. Over the course of my first year of school, Cooper renovated the structure into a residential space, but there was some controversy over a plaque memorializing several firefighters who had died at Ground Zero. The plaque had originally been removed from the exterior before it was sold, but the father of one of the firefighters literally dug it out of the trash and eventually convinced Cooper to reattach it to the front wall. It reappeared sometime during my second year. Even though I’ve passed it over a thousand times, I don’t think I’ve ever previously devoted any words to it, either written or spoken.

Guinness is not the most responsive organization, and so I went into each of my subway attempts unsure of whether I needed to log the times I passed stations that were closed for major construction. Over the course of five attempts, the list of those stations changed several times, with only one constant over a two-year span: Cortlandt Street on the 1. The station, which was the anchor for the Survivor’s Staircase now enshrined in the 9/11 memorial, is slated to reopen at the end of 2018. In my frustration with Guinness’s lack of responsiveness, my act of protest was to play up the 9/11 connection every time I had to note the station in my log. (Of course, the person reviewing my logs was both a) not responsible for the lack of ahead-of-time responsiveness and b) more likely than not based in NYC rather than London, but that didn’t stop me from being unreasonable.)

What struck me when I woke up this morning, then, is that my Facebook feed was practically devoid of 9/11 remembrance messages, and my fairly healthy NYC contingent had written none of the ones that surfaced on first pass. Instead, my Ohio friends (and politicians/public figures) were responsible for the few that I did see. (The imbalance has decreased as of the time of posting, but it still persists.)

But while this seems counterintuitive, it makes some sense. Aside from the immediacy of Irma (which I’m avoiding in writing this self-indulgent post) and the imminent local elections (which you should vote in if you’re registered in NYC), it’s difficult to escape reminders of 9/11 in New York City, and marking an anniversary isn’t as valuable a reminder to networks of people who are always being reminded if you don’t have a direct connection (although far more people in New York do than I might have expected when I first moved here).

And I do say networks of people because the inescapable truth is that Facebook, along with all social media, is fundamentally performative. Posting something on a non-major anniversary of an event may primarily be your way of remembrance, but it is necessarily more than that: a nudge to those who see your posts that they should devote their brainspace as well to what you’re referring to.

Capturing other people’s thoughts, even if momentarily, is a substantial responsibility in many ways, one that leads me to try to nudge issues closer to my heart, such as racial justice, into people’s feeds even when it isn’t immediately tied to current events. But it’s also one that pulls me back from posting when I don’t think something is worth bothering people with (or if I think that reiterating a point so soon might be counterproductive).

In the immediate case, what exactly is the message surrounding our remembrance of an unquestionably tragic day? What value is it to push this back into people’s consciousness?

Is it just the mere fact that so many lives were lost? If so, the death toll from Katrina would merit a similar response. Then, the heroism from the first responders, many of whom also lost their lives? Roughly 400 first responders died as a result of 9/11; typically, about 100 firefighters will die in the line of duty in any given year.

And we elevate this particular attack over almost every other recent mass attack in the United States: Oklahoma City, Columbine, Pulse, Charleston, Fort Hood, the Boston Marathon. Some have well-deserved memorials, but most performative remembrances of these tend to be pushed out from groups directly affected—a sign, really, of their secondary significance in our social consciousness.

I’ve convinced myself of a number of things over the past few years, but one that continues to be relevant in a wide variety of settings is that loss feels powerful largely because of its finality. As long as there is even remote hope that you might be able to resolve something favorably, it’s easy to hang onto that hope, but when that avenue is foreclosed, in whatever context, it requires a reckoning.

The idea that 9/11 changed everything has gone through so many cycles, from solemn invocation to strawman punchline and all the way back through again, but I feel that it’s instructive here. The finality of 9/11, for most of the country, wasn’t a matter of loss of life, but of information you couldn’t unlearn. It was the death of the idea that in the aftermath of the Cold War, America had no more enemies left in the world.

This, of course, was never true. But the nature of what al-Qaeda was was so different from the kinds of existential threats the country had lived in for the last century that the 1993 WTC bombing, perhaps understandably, didn’t move the needle all that much.

But why is it worth performing your remembrance of this fundamental shift? The magnitude and the scope of the recalibration is not to be understated, but the nudges to remind everybody of a moment where an illusion of safety disappeared seem far more likely to me to reinforce narratives primarily founded on fear rather than the “good side of America” that appeared in the aftermath.

FDR’s famous “fear itself” quote was delivered during his March 1933 inauguration. Eight years later, his most famous rhetorical achievement, the Infamy Speech responding to the Pearl Harbor attack, set the stage for the United States’ entry into World War II. The Bush administration explicitly tried to tie their rhetoric after 9/11 to FDR’s, in many ways trying to project the large-scale foreign entanglements that flowed as the opposite of fear while at the same time instituting visible and inefficient domestic policies that worked in the opposite direction. And yet, that fear was persuasive: the only Republican popular vote majority since 1988 occurred in the 2004 election, a cycle universally understood to be a response to 9/11 and the subsequent “War on Terror”.

FDR, of course, also fell short of his own quote, interning over 100,000 Japanese-Americans during the next few years, an abhorrent practice that can only be understood as an overreaction to fear, and may not even deserve that much benefit of the doubt. And he, too, was reelected by substantial margins even with his deteriorating health.

I sit and type this in a borough that has generally managed to embed and to normalize the memory of 9/11 into the very fabric of life here without also encoding the fear that the memory often evokes. And I wonder, as I prepare to nudge my friends to talk about performing emotions, about thoughts that can’t be un-thought, what role we have to play, on an individual level, to recognize and overcome fear as we move forward.

For the fear makes us human; it is what we do with it that can elevate or doom us.

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