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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.