City Lights: Remembering 'the days before 9/11 became 9/11'

It slides so easily off the tongue: 9/11.


The terrorist attacks of a decade ago, which felt almost indescribable at the time, now occupy a compact place in our lexicon. If the hijackers had chosen a date that sounded more awkward out loud — 1/2, maybe, or 11/29 — would we have had to invent a different phrase to summarize the tragedy?

It's a well-worn cliché that time heals all wounds, but maybe language plays a part, too. When America enters a new war, we talk about avoiding another Vietnam. School counselors try to prevent the next Columbine. Overly demanding bosses are Nazis; politicians we despise are Hitler. Those words, when thrown around enough times, can turn into simple buzzwords and lose much of their sting — to say nothing of minimizing their historical significance.

I don't know exactly when 9/11 became a household word, although the New York Times, apparently, first ran it in print in an editorial the day after the attacks. Regardless, it has become so widespread — and fits so easily into phrases like "after 9/11" and "in a post-9/11 world" — that it is hard to remember a time when we didn't evoke it constantly.

It seems a sure bet that we will continue to evoke it for years to come; consider how terms like Waterloo and Custer's Last Stand become part of our vocabulary long after many people can even remember what they mean. Perhaps 9/11, like those events, will sink into the lexicon as an all-purpose term for disaster.

If Cameroon, say, suffers a massive earthquake in 200 years, will the pundits forget about terrorist connotations and simply label the event "Cameroon's 9/11"?

Of course when catastrophes grow distant enough, they become fair game in other ways. Mel Brooks made one of the most successful comedies in history by ridiculing the Third Reich; "The Simpsons" has knocked off countless jokes about Vietnam; Ben Stiller drew few if any protests by comically restaging the Lincoln and Kennedy assassinations in "Zoolander."

Carol Burnett was famously quoted as saying, "Comedy is tragedy plus time." In the few years after 2001, I seldom heard a 9/11 joke — Gilbert Gottfried drew a hostile response by telling one at the Friars Club weeks after the attack — but when a character on "The Office" recently apologized for misbehavior by saying, "I think I never really processed 9/11," it sounded surprisingly less jarring than it might have half a decade earlier.

Does that willingness to downsize tragedy make us a callous culture, or just a resilient one? I like to think it's the latter, and not just because "Springtime for Hitler" makes me laugh, too. Even without Katrinas and Virginia Techs to remind us of the transient nature of safety, life is hard and full of hair-raising chances. Gallows humor can help to lighten that load.

All that said, I'm glad our community will pause this Sunday to remember 9/11 — not just to mourn the dead and the heroes who tried to save them, but to honor the incredible community spirit that flourished after the attacks. (Huntington Beach's 9/11 memorial project, in which New York safety personnel delivered actual steel girders from the World Trade Center to their Surf City counterparts, shows that that spirit still lives among some.)

Over those few days in September 2001, I saw neighbors who had lived on the same block for years introducing themselves for the first time. I got invitations to pray in strangers' homes. More importantly, I saw a country that would turn bitterly divisive in less than a year grow as unified as I have ever seen before or since.

When the vigils and ceremonies begin Sunday, it will be a chance to recapture that feeling, if only for a moment. It will be a chance, in short, to remember the days before 9/11 became 9/11.

City Editor MICHAEL MILLER can be reached at (714) 966-4617 or at

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