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How will we remember 9/11 in years ahead?

Updated: November 30, 2011 12:16AM

How will America remember Sept. 11, 2001, on Sept. 11, 2047?

It will be the 46th anniversary of 9/11. Most of the elected leaders who stood tall that day will have been long gone. Many of the rescue workers, survivors, family members of the fallen and media who delivered eyewitness accounts will also have left the world. If you were a 35-year-old firefighter in New York that day and God’s grace has granted you a long life, you’ll be an 81-year-old telling stories to your grandchildren.

Whatever magical devices are delivering news to the nation in 2047, we will still have the equivalent of a front page, a lead story. No doubt those lead stories will be about something else, and the 46th-anniversary-of-9/11 stories will be relatively small and relegated to “Also today . . . ” status.

This December we will observe the 70th anniversary of Pearl Harbor — “a date which will live in infamy,” as President Roosevelt put it.

Because our culture attaches such weight to anniversaries with round numbers, because some who were there are still with us and can share their memories, we’ll see more than passing mention of the anniversary. More than we saw last year; more than we’ll see on the 71st anniversary.

(According to the United States Dept. of Veterans Affairs, of the 16 million members of the Armed Forces who served during World War II, approximately 2,079,000 are still alive. The median age for World War II veterans is about 88. More than 800 World War II veterans die every day.)

And so at noon on Sunday, the Bears and Falcons helped to hold the enormous American flag covering Soldier Field as Jim Cornelison belted out the National Anthem and the crowd roared. It was an extraordinary scene. It was the 10th anniversary.

Few of us are immune to the round-number game. Whether we’re pretending our 30th or 50th birthday isn’t a big deal even as the family’s planning a big celebration, or marking the 25th anniversary of our favorite team’s world championship, or seeing the media devote endless hours of coverage to the 10th anniversary of a world-changing day in history, nobody really questions WHY turning 50 is such a bigger deal than turning 49, or why there should be elaborate memorials one year and muted observance the next. It’s the way we are.

A date on the calendar

In a compelling interview on the National Geographic Channel, former President George W. Bush observed that Sept. 11 will eventually be “a date on the calendar like Pearl Harbor Day, never to be forgotten by those who lived through it.”

Absolutely true. But what about someone who will be born in, say, 2022? When that person is 25 in 2047, will 9/11 carry much more significance than all those other dates she learned in history class — dates such as Dec. 7, 1941 and Nov. 22, 1963?

We know the answer.

When flaunting their ignorance about some piece of history, the callow and cheerfully ignorant like to say, “I wasn’t even around then, so why I should care?”

Right. Because the universe as we know it didn’t matter until YOU were born.

But no matter how much one respects history, no matter how much one immerses oneself in the written or video or audio documents of a hugely important moment in time — if you weren’t there you weren’t there. If you don’t have the personal memories, the stories that begin with, “I remember exactly where I was when I heard the news,” it’s nearly impossible for that date to have the same resonance.

One of the great things about the info-revolution of the last decade is that more than ever, it’s up to the news consumer to decide what he wants to watch and read and when he wants to watch and read it. If you wanted to spend the last week utterly immersed in 9/11 retrospectives, there probably wasn’t a single moment when you couldn’t find something on live TV, and there certainly wasn’t a moment when you couldn’t have called up a documentary on demand or downloaded one of the thousands of books on the subject or gone to YouTube to check out videos related to 9/11.

By that same measure, it’s easier than ever to avoid coverage of any particular subject matter, even something as widespread and sometimes profound as the 9/11 anniversary coverage.

The freedoms in the freest nation in the world include the freedom of speech — and the freedom to decide which voices you want to hear and when you want to hear them.

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