What does one do with an 11th anniversary of devastating tragedy and uncommon bravery? Not the same as one does with first anniversaries, or fifth, or 10th anniversaries. That searing pain and profound pride can only recede with time. That doesn't mean we forget. It simply means that years create separation, whether we want them to or not. And, though it's healthy that we allow that process to happen, something tells us that doing so is somehow wrong.
It is not.
Therefore, annual commemorations of the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington must evolve, and they have. They are quieter now. Reflective. Imbued with perspective, appreciation of history and grasp of context.
Not every city hosted a formal observation -- Bakersfield did not, although there were a number of events to recognize the day throughout Kern County. In some U.S. towns and cities those events included a simple reading of the names of those lost on Sept. 11, 2001. That sort of recognition is appropriate.
In the days following those terrorist attacks 11 years ago, political partisanship evaporated for a few weeks. Members of Congress gathered on the Capitol steps, Democrats mingling with Republicans, to collectively grieve and pay tribute. The only affiliation that mattered in those days was that we were Americans -- in both spirit and citizenship. But 11 years later, the only observation we can count on is the politician's obligatory public statement. Meanwhile, partisanship is back -- and the perceived failure of an opposition political figure to say or do just the right thing is justification for attack.
When Vice President Joe Biden, speaking at the Flight 93 Memorial in Shanksville, Pa., called the 9/11 anniversary a "bittersweet moment," conservative talk show hosts Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity pounced. "What is bittersweet about 9/11? ... What does he think it is? With 9/11, it's all bitter. What's bittersweet?" Limbaugh said.
"Does he even know what the word bittersweet means?" Hannity said. "... Explain the sweet part, Mr. Vice President."
The sweet part of bittersweet, Messrs. Limbaugh and Hannity, is the courage and fight that those passengers displayed aboard Flight 93, and the bond of love, pride and patriotism that those who choose to honor them every year have come to share. Nothing bitter about those things.
National Park Service Flight 93 National Memorial superintendent Jeff Reinhold, speaking just before Biden, said as much: "And a very special welcome to the families of the 40 passengers and crew of Flight 93. As always, it is bittersweet to have you with us again."
In their hearts the radio hosts know all that to be true, but the politicization of 9/11 does not permit them to drop their partisan slings long enough to help the nation grieve.
But, again, perhaps their return to business-as-usual sniping is a sign of recovery. It's certainty a sign of time's inexorable march.
As reader Rick Starr of Knoxville, commenting on a New York Times article about evolving 9/11 coverage, wrote: "With the passage of time the memory diminishes, and what seemed cataclysmic becomes merely catastrophic and eventually only disastrous. Pearl Harbor, awful as it was, was not worse than Antietam or Gettysburg, yet those civil war horribles are scarcely noted anymore, having retired into the pages of history books."