The event currently known as 9-11 needs a new name

Posted: Jun 19, 2002 12:00 AM
Politicians, tyrants and communists long have admired euphemism and double talk for their faculty in cloaking truth, diffusing meaning and just plain baffling the people they hope to convince, rule or confuse. Thus we are treated to sentences such as this one, which I clipped and saved years ago as an example of abstruse writing. Taken from an Associated Press story, the quote was attributed to then-Romanian Premier Nicolae Vacaroiu as he outlined his economic plans: "We sought the elimination of dysfunctions from the sub-systems of reforms (and) directions of action intended for the coherent functionality of the entire economic-social system." And what might his eminence have meant by that? Who knows? Which may have been exactly the point. Similarly, the Romanian media reported that "The press conference from yesterday, held forth by the leaders of the National Salvation Front, was focused principally on several principal subjects." A glossary from the same article included some common terms used by the Romanian media with their translations: "infractional phenomenon" for crime; "activate in justice" for sue; "exists in the possession of" for has. George Orwell, in his 1946 treatise on "Politics and the English Language," said that such tortured phraseology is needed "if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them." Which is precisely what we've done with Sept. 11. Nine-Eleven. 9-11. Nineleven. What mental pictures do those words conjure up? Certainly not men and women jumping from 100-story windows. Not 1,000-degree flames devouring thousands of terrified people. Not men and women running down staircases with their skin falling from their bodies or being consumed by fire balls exploding from elevator doors. No, nine eleven won't do. I remember that shortly after "the terrorist attacks of 9-11," as we called it immediately afterward, people in the media and elsewhere knocked around for an appropriate name for history's worst attack on American soil. In our ultrasonic Info Age, we needed something solemn yet pithy, recognizable but inoffensive, above all
headlineish and soundbyteful. Nine-eleven wasn't born but rather evolved -from "the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11" to the "events of nine-eleven" to just 9-11. But two numbers joined by a slash or hyphen don't approximate the holocaust or the act of genocide that 9-11 definitively was. Instead, 9-11 sounds like a one-stop joint for a quickie lube and a Diet Coke. No, nine eleven won't do. It doesn't come close to evoking the event it names. But what should we name it? We've had nine months to absorb the shock and to assess the meaning of events. Even if dulled by repetition or inured by time, we shouldn't be willing to accept either sanitized renderings of what happened -falling bodies deleted and sidewalk thuds erased -or glib little blurbettes to summarize it. I was not among those who, after weeks of video replay, said "enough." I've hung a photograph of the New York City skyline, including the World Trade Center towers, above my desk so that I don't skip a day thinking about what happened. We need daily reminders of what we're up against and should be selective in the language we use to name "it" -the horror, terror, agony and loss. Remarkably, by comparison, we agonize over naming our babies, our puppies, our schools, our athletic teams, but not our worst moment. As history goes, the attack on America on Sept. 11, 2001, surely ranks with other cataclysmic events -the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the atomic bombing of Japan, the fall of the Roman Empire, the American Civil War. Which is to say, the event currently known as 9-11 deserves more than a calendar notation. The almost instantaneous deaths of some 3,000 people coupled with what we now know to be the beginning of an epochal struggle between increasingly alienated nations calls for more than a vocabulary pit stop. What then? I don't know. But Orwell's advice, written in another time and context, seems apt: "What is above all needed is to let the meaning choose the word, and not the other way around." The meaning of the mass murders that occurred on Sept. 11 has not fully revealed itself, but this much we know: It was an American awakening, a moment when we discovered unequivocally that we are not an island; we are not impervious or invulnerable; we are not so precious that we cannot be despised and annihilated. For that -and for the future consequences yet to be realized -911 won't do. (Send suggestions, which will be reviewed in a future column, to