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Commemorating 9/11

Robin Lakoff, professor emerita of linguistics | September 5, 2011

America is about to be engulfed in a tidal wave of 9/11 commemoration. There has never been anything like it before, so as a society we are constructing the rules for the procedure from scratch. But it might be better if we could first step back for a moment and ask a more basic question: why commemorate a horrific and tragic event like 9/11 at all? Does it even make sense, or might it ultimately be counterproductive?

I have encountered virtually no discussion of the “why,” other than that the people in charge seem to feel that someone has to do something, anything – to show their patriotism; to identify with the  survivors’ pain; to demonstrate our indomitability to “them,” whoever they are. All of these, done well, might be worthy aims. But will endless regurgitation of the horrors of ten years ago accomplish any of them?

Or might it have unforeseen deleterious effects?

Why, for instance, is it an act of patriotism to bring back to America’s consciousness, and the world’s, a moment of loss, weakness, and defeat? One of our favorite clichés from that time is, “That would be letting the terrorists win.” Well, reminding ourselves (and them) of their success, however momentary, is not going to make us feel better in any way I can imagine – but is rather likely to encourage “them” to preen reminiscing about their actions.

The problem is more serious than that. The real question to be answered is: What is an appropriate way to deal with acts of terrorism? To answer this question, we first have to understand what acts of terror are, and how they are intended to function.  Only then can we learn how to discourage their repetition

It is important to understand what acts of terror are intended to accomplish. One way to begin to answer that is to see that terrorism is a speech act. It is first of all an act of communication, accomplished via a nonverbal channel (analogous to flag burning).

Therefore terrorism is not the same as either crime or war, though it shares some properties with each. War and crime are, predominantly, physical acts designed to accomplish physical results (possession of another’s land or property, for example). They do, of course, have communicative aspects (propaganda, clearly, in the case of war; intimidation in the case of crime), but the main intention of those who perpetrate warlike or criminal activities is physical.

Not so terrorism. Here things are reversed. While there are certainly physical components to terrorist acts, they are done above all to make a communication that will alter the minds and behavior of their targets, like a verbal threat. A war or a crime is over when it’s over, but acts of terror resound in the mind and continue to perpetuate shock and horror, as words do.

The greatest desire of terrorists is for their acts to have demonstrable effects on those minds. Every indication targets give of their continued suffering constitutes an additional act of terrorism, an aftershock. Hence reminding ourselves, and our attackers, of how well they succeeded is in no way to fight terrorism. And worse, it does not merely give aid and comfort to the original terrorists,  but encourages wannabes eager for their own fifteen minutes.

Since terrorism is a communicative act, responding to it communicatively legitimizes the original utterance, making it more vivid and more effective. The best way to deny effectiveness to any kind of communication is to ignore it, to fail to respond to it in any way. To respond to a communication is to assent to its meaning and function.

That is the last thing we should want to achieve.  Our insistence on recalling 9/11 is one symptom of our failure to recognize what it meant and therefore to devise a way to prevent future acts of a similar kind.

Comments to “Commemorating 9/11

  1. “reminding ourselves (and them) of their success, however momentary, is not going to make us feel better in any way I can imagine”

    What Prof Lakoff can’t understand is there is more to life than her feelings. America is not about whether she gets to ignore the unpleasant parts of reality.

    What makes America great are the people who face those adversities, who remind themselves of them, who work to overcome them, and who eventually do. Whether it’s building a transcontinental railroad, creating a great University, curing polio or fighting terrorism, it’s to the people who face the difficulties and work to solve them that we owe our thanks to. The commentators, pundits & blogging professors are just along for the ride, and too self-centered to notice it.

    • “What makes America great are the people who face those adversities, who remind themselves of them, who work to overcome them, and who eventually do.”

      This strikes me as vacuous rhetoric that ascribes some kind of super-human (or extra-human) qualities to “Americans,” as if that were actually a homogenous group with homogenous personalities and values. One could substitute any other country in that sentence, and it would be just as “true.”

  2. “One way to begin to answer that is to see that terrorism is a speech act. It is first of all an act of communication, accomplished via a nonverbal channel (analogous to flag burning).”

    “First of all”? Your arrogance is stunning!

    Having your head slowly sliced off of your body is a speech act, is it?

    You can’t imagine–or your agenda does not permit you to consider–that it could FIRST be something else?

    Give it a try, Perfesser. See if it could have any other functions.

    Only a crude sophist could even imagine uttering such blather. You have fooled generations of gullible students with your rhetorical antics. However, you may take comfort in the fact—revealed by comments above—that you are not alone in cloud cuckoo land.

    Disgraceful bilge.

  3. So here we are 10 years later and still there are 28 pages of the 9/11 report which haven’t been released! This video sheds a lot of light on what those 28 pages might have in them.. Let us grow out of the silly idea that a bunch of cave dwelling Afghanis were able to pull something like that off! Americans deserve closure.

  4. (Please pass this around)

    Gawker Media, located at Gawker Media LLC, 210 Elizabeth Street, 4th Floor, New York, NY, 10012 is a travesty to the 9/11 victims. These people and this publication have made a practice of exposing the identities of intelligence officers, including those involved in the killing of Bin Laden, in order to attempt to get those American intelligence officers killed. This is a proven and widely reported fact in international media. Look it up in any search engine. type in “Gawker outs cia…” The utter disdain for the law and common decency is the essence of Gawker Media. The media reports they were also involved in hacking the phones of victims. Please write them and their advertisers and let them know what you think.

  5. “What hurts the victim most is not the physical cruelty of the oppressor, but the silence of the bystander.” –Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel.

    Professor Lakoff’s attempt to rationalize a response of silence to the violence of 911 is the greatest communication gift that could be given to the violent supremacists that held sovereign control of those four aircraft with the intention of killing tens of thousands innocent victims.
    The hijackers sought to symbolically showcase their lust for death against the American love of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The families who lost loved ones and the American community that felt a sense of rupture in this sensational act, do not deserve the silence of American academics allergic to patriotism. Moreover, we are right to derive the symbolic significance of this proposal– the shaming and isolation of both families and community who seek commemoration and validation of the meaning lost in those lives taken on 9/11.

    When hate crimes occur on college campuses, I have never heard a college professor call for silence in response to the loss. The strategic reversal here, speaks volumes of the academic culture that seeks to make a coy identification with attackers on 911. Silence is acceptance and professor Lakoff’s proposal of silence is one which I reject. I will not be silent. What happened on 9/11 was a hateful despicable act and I grieve the loss of families and I affirm the positive sense of community embodied in the American nation.

  6. It won’t happen, but perhaps we should remember 9/11 as the date the US went nuts. It is no disrespect to those that suffered and died that day to notice that our response as a nation was to suppress our civil liberties, commit torture & murder abroad, and wiretapping and imprisonment without charges or trial of our citizens.

    We invaded Iraq, which had absolutely zero to do with the attacks, and completely ignored the fact that the attack was led by 17 Saudis.

    We were told we were either with the Bush administration or we were with the terrorists, and that it was high treason to question the actions of the White House, or the need to go to war. French fries were renamed “Freedom Fries” because our allies refused to invade Iraq with us.

    The media unquestioningly repeated everything the government wanted, without fact-checking or comment. The few that did ask “why?” were shouted down or derided as pro-terrorist and unpatriotic.

    As I said, it won’t happen. People will wave little American flags and thump their chests, and then it’ll be time for Dancing With The Stars.

  7. “The greatest desire of terrorists is for their acts to have demonstrable effects on those minds.” R. Lakoff

    Thanks for the succinct critique and for calling on it. Like Burleigh, I shudder at the misdirected commemoration and the illusion of self-reflection.

  8. I cannot begin to comprehend a position which holds that the mass murder of 3,000 of my American brothers and sisters should be brushed from public consciousness, I do, however, have some ideas about what underlies what has become, in academia, an almost pathological denial of 9/11 (not in the “truther” sense but the literal denial of it as an historical event). Why do academics wish 9/11 didn’t happen (aside from the obvious loss of life)? Because 9/11 has disrupted a narrative wherein iniquity is exclusively the act of a familiar cast of bugbears: Republicans, the U.S. government, multinational corporations, capitalists, and the rest of the old favorites.

    If 9/11 was intended to send a “communication”, it was incomprehensible to me. If a murderer slays one man we don’t approach him and inquire “what message are you trying to convey, sir”? Why should it be different if he and his bloodthirsty coconspirators murdered 3,000? 9/11 was an act of monumental evil committed by individuals so filled with hatred for their fellow man that they were willing to commit suicide for the opportunity to commit mass murder of people they had never even met. And on this occasion when video evidence surfaced with the perpetrators self-identifying not as evangelical southern protestants but as MUSLIMS , the best and brightest of academia (with Chomsky leading the way) attempted to fashion increasingly bizarre rationalizations of the act of murder until they collectively went mum on the subject.

    I understand the fear underlying the obfuscations and reluctance to address the fact that individuals who committed the crime at least declared their affiliation with Islam. There are enough forums stirring up ethnic and religions tension. However, to simply discuss, remember, and reflect on the event is not to do such. Those of us adult enough to have the conversation will not conflate the Muslims in our neighborhood with those who perpetrated 9/11. Those who are not, are not going to be dissuaded from their bigotry by feeble attempts at rationalization or utter silence on the issue.

  9. This blogger is one that really annoys me, so it seems like a good idea for me to define why this is so. First, she usually puts forth some theory that to me seems to come straight out of Far Left Lotus Land. Then she proceeds to construct argument which are probably only about her personal and political preferences. After several paragraphs her writing feels like a maze in which she has hidden her true motives, and I usually stop reading. Some of her ideas definitely fall into the category of absurdity, especially the notion that 9/11 programs we watch on television, listen to on radio, or read in books, are somehow wrong because the give aid and comfort to the terrorists who were only trying to communicate.
    Look, I know several people who were born on 9/11, & I can sympathize with wanting to avoid what happened on their birth anniversary. That’s a genuine personal choice,
    What the terrorist did was more than communicate; they acted on principles in which they invested their lives. The 3000 dead people were a reality & not free speech. To honor the dead & living survivors is a very important act, a part of every civilized culture of which I have heard.
    Why didn’t the professor comment on the fact that terrorism backfires? The terrorists have been marginalized in countries like Afghanistan and Pakistan. Many others have been captured before they could act. Doesn’t she think they know this as they congratulate themselves on the horror they created.
    The price of the vigilance needed to combat terrorists has been very high, a fact I deeply regret and part of my regret is for the loss of quality in our personal lives.

  10. Thank you for the cogent analysis of terrorism and its misdirected commemoration. You’ve given substance to my otherwise instinctual aversion to what’s barrelling down the tracks toward next weekend. I anticipate it will be another embarrassing (to the rest of the world) jingoistic train wreck that makes thinking minds cringe. JB

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