Paul Elie is a senior fellow with the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs and the director of the American Pilgrimage Project, a university partnership with StoryCorps based in the Berkley Center. His work deals primarily with the ways religious ideas are given expression in literature, the arts, music, and culture in the broadest sense. In the American Pilgrimage Project he examines the ways religious beliefs inform the experiences of the American people at crucial moments in their lives. Elie is also the moderator of Georgetown's Faith and Culture Series, a series of public conversations about the interaction of religion, art, literature, and society. He is the author of two books. The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003) is a group portrait of four twentieth-century Catholic writers (Flannery O'Connor, Walker Percy, Thomas Merton, and Dorothy Day). Reinventing Bach (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012) chronicles the transformation of Bach's music through recording technology in the hands of great musicians (Albert Schweitzer, Pablo Casals, Glenn Gould, Yo-Yo Ma, et al.). Both books were National Book Critics Circle Award finalists, and The Life You Save May Be Your Own received the PEN / Martha Albrand Award for First Nonfiction, a Christopher Award, and two Modern Language Association book prizes.
“Hard to believe it, isn’t it, but tomorrow’s going to be the eighteenth anniversary, that’s right, the eighteenth, one-eight, of That Day.”
So said a morning drive-time radio host in New York yesterday morning, personally and professionally striving—as many of us are doing—to find the right way to characterize the anniversary of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon now that it has settled into something like the ordinary.
Eighteen years ago today. On the one hand, I can’t remember ever celebrating the eighteenth anniversary of anything. On the other, 18, in our society, is the age at which things come of age. The Glenfiddich Distillery offers a single-malt Scotch aged 12 years, but the premium single malt has been aged for 18. A person born on this day 18 years ago—September 11, 2001—is, in important respects, “of age” as of today. This 18-year-old is able to buy cigarettes and pornography legally at the corner store. This 18-year-old is entitled to vote on Election Day. And this 18-year-old is free to serve in the United States military whether that means that he or she is old enough to assume the responsibility of defending the homeland against the Islamist terrorists who hijacked jet planes and crashed them into buildings full of people doing their jobs, or old enough to be seduced to the process of staffing the forever wars over territory and ideology fomented by violent men—wars of which the September 11 attacks were one singular expression.
By this line of reasoning, it might be said that today, on the eighteenth anniversary of 9/11, our age—the age of which September 11, 2001 is taken to be the beginning—has itself come of age.
Suppose that’s the case. Well, what kind of age is this, as it reaches its majority? It’s an age in which industrial-scale terrorism is taken for granted. It’s an age in which terrorism is generally thought to have a religious dimension—religiously motivated until proven otherwise. It’s an age in which the ability of national leaders to do anything of consequence about terrorist violence is in inverse proportion to their determination to be seen doing something about it. In this age—which began with a terrorist strike in which literal and symbolic violence were maleficently intertwined—symbolism is the coin of the realm. To take one example, the Trump White House’s supposed plan to hammer out a peace agreement for Afghanistan with the Taliban at Camp David last week had a commentariat-ready significance assigned to it in advance. Sure enough, the commentators, playing along, assessed the half-cocked, soon-botched plan almost entirely in view of its symbolism, asking whether the Taliban should be welcomed at the symbolically rich site of previous peace accords so near to 9/11 and asking whether the peace deal would have allowed President Trump to deliver on a “core” agenda issue so as to kick-start his re-election campaign—rather than asking whether the peace agreement would have done anything of substance to make life more peaceful in Afghanistan.
Has our age come of age? Alas, it hasn’t. Not yet. At the time, the attacks on the World Trade Center were a sobering phenomenon. They showed (reminding us of what we ought to have known all along) that evil is real; that some people will stop at nothing to make sure their ideas have consequences; that other people will die at scale in the violent conflicts they stir up; that wars can be undertaken in haste for the wrong reasons, stretching on ad infinitum. The attacks, among all else they were, felt like an abrupt moment of maturation. We felt, at the moment, that our worldview was exposed for its limitations and that we were being made to grow up fast in consequence.
Eighteen years later, it seems to me, what seemed a coming of age is better described as an arrested development. What have we learned? That some people never grow up—that maturity, or majority, is a state of being, not a chronological marker. That in wartime eighteen years can pass and little can change. That symbolism such as anniversary is mostly commemorative—that, necessary as it is, an anniversary can do little more than remind us that we ought not to forget.