Not that you needed reminding, but Sunday is the 10th anniversary of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Around the world, memorials will be held, prayers said, tears shed. President Obama has called on the nation to "reaffirm the strength of our nation with acts of service and charity." Mozart's Requiem will be performed in countless venues.
But anniversaries of historic events — particularly less-than-happy ones — can be tricky things, not least of all because dates don't often lodge themselves in the brain the way events themselves do. People of a certain age might know that Pearl Harbor Day is Dec. 7 or that President Kennedy was killed on Nov. 22, 1963. But to younger generations, it's the event that matters, not the date itself. Devoted fans of Princess Diana or Michael Jackson might have the dates of their heroes' deaths etched in their brains. But I'd hazard a guess that most of us couldn't come up with Aug. 31, 1997, or June 25, 2009, even if we remember what we were doing when we heard the news.
But 9/11, of course, is different. So comprehensive and widespread was the tragedy that it soon became clear the events of that day could only be referred to by their date. And so Sept. 11 has become something of a permanent national blackout date. Weddings, "gala" fundraisers and retirement parties are scheduled around it, and expectant parents hope their babies won't be born on it. Unlike the infamous day that kicked off America's entrance into World War II, there's no chance that, generations from now, people will need to check the Internet to get the date right. Like the Fourth of July, the "when" is part of the commemorative package.
That's especially true when it comes to multiples of 10. Occasions marked by round numbers are more worthy of attention than the less-than-milestone years in between. That's why we have 10th and 20th and 30th class reunions but not seventh or 18th or 23rd.
This being 9/11's first round-number anniversary, the imperative to pay homage is accompanied by considerably more fanfare than in years past. As has been the case every year since 2001, the names of all the victims will be read aloud at ground zero. But this time, that ceremony will christen (finally) a permanent memorial at the site, one that also captures those names in bronze.
On television, commemorative programming is already dominating the airwaves like Christmas specials in December: There's PBS' "Frontline: Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero," CNN's "Beyond 9/11: Portraits of Resilience" and Fox News' "9/11: Timeline of Terror," to name a few. Meanwhile, a Long Island winery is even (oh, dear) issuing 9/11 wines; part of the proceeds will benefit 9/11 memorial foundations. A chardonnay and a merlot are being produced.
Whatever other effects the hoopla engenders, I'd wager more than a few people feel at least a little alienated by it: Can 10 whole years really have passed since that terrible day? That's the thing about decades. They can seem at once like an eternity and like the blink of an eye. As with the 10-year class reunion — where the passage of time reveals the direction people are headed but not necessarily where they'll end up — the decade anniversary of a historic event tells only part of the story.
And because the story of 9/11 will undoubtedly be revisited for centuries to come, 10 years is a mere blip. Since 2001 we've started two wars; in trivial ways and important ones, we've traded our privacy for more security and generally recalibrated our relationship to the concept of outside threats.
But, in the grand scheme of things, the attacks of 9/11 might as well have just happened. That's because there's a difference between knowing something, or even generally understanding it, and truly fathoming it. We grasp what took place, but the whole thing remains, for most of us, largely unfathomable. Ten years out, "the events," real as we know they were, still seem surreal enough that it's hard to fully wrap our minds around them. No turbocharged decennial tribute, however well intentioned and however moving, is going to change that.
We'll see how we're doing in another 10 years. Meanwhile, acts of service, prayers and the Requiem will have to suffice. For now, that's enough.