Staff essay: As terror ends, instant nostalgia (9.14.01)

The day after did not seem too soon. Indeed, moments after did not seem too soon.

Instantly, nostalgia. For a city skyline. For national security. For a world that at least felt safe for Americans.

And so, nostalgic, we did what Americans — and American students — do: we imposed order. Context. Analogies.

Trained to imagine history as a procession of generations — the Lost Generation, the Greatest Generation, the Baby Boomers — we have spent the last three days writing our own history and failing badly.

We are too close now. The terror is too fresh. Weeks seemed to have passed as the same images — instant iconography — flashed before us.

By 8 a.m. this morning, it will have been, in fact, only 72 hours. Four thousand three hundred twenty minutes.

A prescient if inadvertent warning against just this kind of hasty history came earlier this week.

Five days before the morning that redefined our young generation on terrorists’ terms, History Professor Cynthia Russett, introducing a course about American intellectual life in the Twentieth Century, called on a young man in the back of a packed lecture hall.

Why, on a list of 10 course books, the young man asked, did the most recent volume bear a copyright of only 1957?

“Beyond 1957,” Russett said, “you enter a gray area.”

The past must be far enough in the past, she explained, to discern from it any real meaning. Not until decades after the fact can historians properly place true calamity as pages in the larger record of our civilization.

Which makes one wonder: If 44 years ago is too soon to study, if the Vietnam War, the end of Camelot, the Civil Rights Movement, Neil Armstrong’s walk on the moon and the fall of the Berlin Wall are too soon — if history does indeed require more than an eager analyst with a pen or microphone — then why have the historians been so busy this week?

Why have they forced the comparison? Pearl Harbor, Dec. 7, 1941. The Kennedy assassination, Nov. 22, 1963.

We know these dates as our children will likely know this one, because we have been taught that some days — the days of traumatic historical moment — create a before and an after.

But the simple fact is that there is no “after” yet. At least, not one we can understand, let alone allow to define us. So we recoil at the newspaper columns, the marathon broadcasts, the instant history-making that has become the unsleeping, ambient noise of the week.

Making sense of history, we are fast learning, requires patience.

Or maybe we have not learned it at all.

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