There are two ways to write about Sept. 11, 2001.
Predictably, the first approach is solemnly nostalgic. We write to remember, to count blessings, to honor those who gave and those who lost.
We write to relive the day and to keep its shock and sting fresh so we avoid forgetting harsh lessons it forced us to learn.
Everyone wants the chance to pass on to his or her grandchildren how the day felt from one’s own personal perspective. So, we write to access the details. We compel ourselves to document an anecdotal side of our national nightmare for posterity.
It has become almost an American ritual to commiserate by comparing sensory details about mundane things we were doing when we heard the news.
We try to use our words to recreate visualizations of the Twin Towers falling and the Pentagon’s smoking gash. But, like puzzle pieces, the words do nothing when unassembled. We carefully try to string them together to explain how unimaginable scenes affected us.
Generations not around to experience the tragedy would never be able to grasp the panic, loss or fear by browsing Wikipedia synopses, after all.
Emotionally focusing on the day’s gut-wrenching moments in our writing is admittedly essential to portraying what it was like to be an American in the autumn of 2001.
But we can’t stop there because writing about 9/11 an entirely different way could even be more important.
Rather than transporting the reader back to just the one day, the alternative firmly roots itself in the present, gazes backward and embraces the 12-year-old road that stretches behind us.
We have to write for future Americans to show we haven’t compartmentalized what happened and that 9/11 isn’t just another date living in infamy, worth only a history textbook blurb.
The event deserves far greater consideration than to be labeled an aberration or unfairly dismissed as a blip in otherwise copacetic radar.
To become saddened about 9/11 with no thought to the social ramifications it brought about is a brutally incomplete oversimplification at best.
We have to describe our society, as it exists now, to have something concrete that tells our future kids how there are things we worry about today specifically because of 9/11.
Heightened security at airport checkpoints in the 2000s through the present isn’t a cultural convention by itself.
But our learned expectation of the increased security and acknowledging it as part of life shows how our collective mindset necessarily differs.
If we don’t describe how weird it was to suddenly have to endure immense airport lines, bagging liquids and removing one’s shoes, those things will become absorbed into travel culture as norms.
We have to explain how an uprising in patriotism was oddly accompanied by a drastic increase in racial profiling and stereotyping.
Many scared Americans wanted ideological scapegoats and frantically sought ways to allay fears of future incidents, and we have to tell that story too.
If we don’t write about what 9/11 caused socially, politically and economically, we risk eventually stashing it away in our American consciousness as an isolated tragic incident whose gravity fades over time.
9/11 is absolutely an indelible and sad chapter of American history, but it’s more than that. It has become an inescapable part of American culture.
And that is something worth both honoring and accurately representing for people to be able to read when we, the eyewitnesses, are no longer around to talk about it.