Sunday, 11 September 2011

9/11 -- The Public and the Personal

Today, as we all know, marks the 10th anniversary of 9/11, the pivotal -- in some ways defining -- event of our time (to date). It is difficult to know exactly what should be said, except that it might involve in parts: some reflection, some sadness, some remembrance of lives lost and lives changed, some humility when we consider the fleeting nature of our existence, some thankfulness for our freedom (which I believe we can do without resorting to cliché). No doubt there are more parts yet that should be added to the whole. 9/11 changed our terms of reference in profound ways that we cannot even fully realize. It was, in the words of some, the "end of the end of history" -- the phrase "The End of History" having been popularized in the 1990s by Francis Fukuyama.

The Idle Historian researches and writes about war, terror and fear in a different time -- the 1930s and the impending war with Fascism. The threat these individuals faced was of another nature, but our human reactions to the fear of attack remain quite constant. We debate strategy and politics. We doubt to what extent our liberty should be constrained in order that it should be preserved. We are tempted towards division, even as the fear makes us long for unity. 

Even though many of us were in no way directly involved in the events of that dreadful day, 9/11 stories are always intensely personalized. One example is the omnipresent question: Where were you when you first heard the news? Most of us remember the events of that day in great detail -- the shock, the disbelief, the feeling of not knowing if this was the end of the horror or just the beginning. The years since have seen events played out in arenas global and local -- from distant wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to an airport near you: the removal of shoes, the enhanced security, the confiscated tube of toothpaste or shampoo, the certainty that things were not as they were.

For the Idle Historian the immediate days after 9/11 involved, rather coincidentally, joining the Canadian Army Reserve. The paperwork had been processed months before, and the timing was simply random. I had been accepted as an officer cadet but not sworn in. When some friends learned of the impending event, a general reaction went along the lines of whether a reconsideration should be made -- even at such a late stage. It is easy to forget now that no one could really be certain at the time how far Canada's involvement in wars and counteractions might extend. Predictions of immediate, multi-continental conflict proliferated. But, as I see it, you cannot volunteer to join the army only to change your mind when there was an actual possibility of being sent to war.(*) What is the point of being here if you were to duck out just when you were actually needed? In the aftermath of 9/11 people asked themselves this question in ways great and small, considering how to proceed as communities and societies. We struggle with the meanings of citizenship, inclusiveness, and fear. We are uncertain of what the narrative of 9/11 is now and will be in the future, but ultimately it forms the backdrop of the new world bequeathed to us.


(*) In actual fact, I knew at the time that there was only the most remote possibility of ever being called up to distant battlefields (although such an eventuality cannot entirely be ruled out). The Canadian Army Reserve is not like the National Guard in the US in that Reservists have not been ordered to overseas conflict since the Second World War. Reservists can, and do, volunteer for overseas tours. You MAY, however, be called up for any type of service based on the turn of world events and possible emergencies, and as a Reservist you understand this on signing up.

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