A Lapse in Labelling

"Since 9/11..." Every North American who hasn't been living in a cave has become familiar with that phrase. It precedes an announcement about how much things have changed since terrorist attacks levelled the World Trade Center.

Things have indeed changed, but I would like to direct your attention to a comment in the September 2002 edition of Popular Science. It's in the "From the Editor" section most magazines have – that quick intro that most of us skip.

Editor Scott Mowbray makes the following observation: "... there is a limit to the capacity of terrorists. They may wreck buildings and devastate neighbourhoods but they don't wreck strong countries ..."

The death toll of 9/11 is about 50% greater than that suffered by the U.S. during the "Day of Infamy" at Pearl Harbour. Yet that attack was launched by an entire country fully mobilized to carry out war, not a rag-tag group of widely dispersed fanatics.

In find Mowbray's comments comforting and if I was qualified to do so I'd analyze his statement in depth, but I'll leave the in-depth scrutiny and predictions to the experts. I'd rather comment on something rather more mundane, which I haven't heard anybody else mention. To wit: why "9/11"?

Americans don't talk about "12/7/41" or "7/12/41" (depending on how you represent dates); they talk about "Pearl Harbour". They don't say "Remember spring of 1836", they say "Remember the Alamo".

It's easy to come up with simple theories about why the events last year got labelled as "9/11". Perhaps people are moved by the resemblance to the telephone number "911", which they can dial on their phones for emergency assistance. After all, 9/11 highlighted the heroism of firemen and the police. But in these days of infotainment, I'm astonished that some news network (CNN, say) didn't come up with a tidy buzz-phrase for referring to the attack. I can hear the pundits now: "Since the Cowardly Stab To The Heart, Americans have been nervous."

Okay, "Cowardly Stab To The Heart" isn't the phrase they would have chosen. It's too wordy – "Day of Infamy" rolls off the tongue more easily – and I'm not sure we can call the suicide attackers "cowardly". I'm not a copy writer for a major news network, so I lack the skills to encapsulate vast events in 24 frames worth of TV time.

I do think, though, that the fact that nobody has come up with a clever name for 9/11 shows just how deeply the attacks affected our American friends. They were stunned by the sudden realization of their vulnerability, forgot for a moment that they were go-getter capitalists, and realized that they were just as human as the rest of the world.

In June of 1940, in England, when Germany had conquered France and turned its eyes towards Britain, Winston Churchill said, "What General Weygand has called the Battle of France is over. The Battle of Britain is about to begin." We don't remember that struggle on the basis of a date. Most of us don't remember when the first bomb fell on English soil. We remember Churchill exhorting people to carry on, stating:

"Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, 'This was their finest hour.'"

To whom would the American people turn for such inspirational words? George W. Bush is no golden-tongued orator. Indeed, he seems to have trouble mastering even basic American idioms. Quote: "There's an old saying in Tennessee – I know it's in Texas, probably in Tennessee, that says, fool me once, shame on ... [pause] ... shame on you. [awkward pause] Well, we won't be fooled again."

Given all this, I think that "9/11" is the label that is going to stick. It isn't clever or particularly memorable (as a label), but until the historians think up some other mnemonic, that's what the event is going to be called.

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