December 7 and September 11 Bookends

Soon after the September 11 attacks, a billboard message appeared along the entire length of an industrial building outside wall not far from my neighborhood, visible along the rapid transit line from downtown Chicago to Midway airport.

Bookended by flags at both ends were two dates: Dec. 7, 1941 and Sept. 11, 2001. Centered between them was a succinct message: “America will not forget!”

That billboard is still there. At first, the equivalency with the attack on Pearl Harbor was jarring. A decade later, that connection to World War II seems entirely apt, as we have moved from immediate shock and anger to still trying to make emotional sense of it all.

There had been much to consider by World War II’s GIs returning from the front lines and by its civilians readjusting on the home front. It took time.

So, too, amid of flood of tenth anniversary September 11 retrospectives.

Online postings, television specials, films, magazine articles, books, interviews, and one-on-one conversations started earlier this year and grew in frequency with the approach of the actual anniversary date. Media publications such as Entertainment Weekly offered selected highlight lists, effectively acknowledging that it was all-but-impossible to note them all.

Ordinarily such media saturation would have already passed an overkill tipping point. But, like ten years ago, this is different.

Back then, millions tuned in and wanted more information. Some sense of it all. Frankly, some reassurance. Like the populace in 1941, a great unknown lay ahead.

That September morning, a mainland that had never been touched in the two world wars of the twentieth century had suddenly become the home front and, simultaneously, the front line of battle. This was uncharted territory unfolding via the most familiar and accessible means possible: first hand, live, televised from the world’s most wired of media cities.

Even if far from New York City or Washington, everybody had a firsthand experience wondering what had happened, what might happen next, and what they could (or should) do about it. This was not a retrospective movie with the script resolution already worked out.

Now, a decade later, the September 11 memories are being revisited, presented with additional perspective, even some second thoughts. They’ve come in myriad forms from multiple sources, ranging from fully scored theatrical documentaries to quiet slide shows, all filtered by the passage of time. Inevitably they tap our shared media memories.

Ultimately that’s why they work. Someone else’s anecdote unlocks a personal moment and becomes our anecdote. That’s not overkill. It’s us, each one adding to the collective experience.

To what end?

In Tom Brokaw’s introduction to the 2004 reissue of his The Greatest Generation book, he noted the appreciative connections between generations half a century apart that had already begun in a post-September 11 world.

Ten years on is a comparative heartbeat in time. Yet these shared memories are already a key part of understanding and appreciating this generation’s story. Another  “we will not forget.”

© 2011 Walter J. Podrazik

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