Richard Parker: In Marking the Memory of 9/11 Consider the Meaning of an Iconic Day

Cross at Ground Zero

Cross erected by construction and rescue crews at Ground Zero following the attack on the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. Photo by Jeffrey Blackwell/Memorial Church Communications. Richard Parker, Lecturer in Public Policy and Senior Fellow of the Shorenstein Center, Harvard Kennedy School, spoke at Morning Prayers, Sept. 11, 2017. 


And many people shall go and say, Come ye, and let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob; and He will teach us of His ways, and we will walk in His paths: for out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.

He shall judge among the nations, and shall rebuke many people: and they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.

Isaiah 2:3–4


Today, September 11th—“nine-eleven”—is for most of us an iconic day, as instantly recognizable and laden with meaning as July 4th, December 7th, New Year’s Eve, or even Christmas Day.

But how and why is 9/11 iconic—and why am I asking that question here today?

For the linguistically fastidious, of whom Harvard has its share, 9/11 isn’t technically an icon at all. That’s because, in its original Greek meaning, icons are not numbers but images, and specifically Orthodox Christian ones at that, meant to guide us reflectively toward the divine.

Yet of course 9/11 for all of us is iconic, with the date itself a referent — “a scannable bar code” is probably the better word in this digital age of ours — a referent to what is truly an unforgettable visual image, of the World Trade Center’s twin towers collapsing that late summer’s morning in 2001, carrying down with them 3,000 lives in their fall.

But iconographically 9/11 is more than that, because the iconic image of those falling towers contains at least three important ways of imagining the world beyond visually portraying their fall that we need consider today.

First whether in stills or video, whether seen from a distance or close up, the towers in those few compressed moments on 9/11 elicit and organize our emotions into a patterned sequence of hierarchic feelings, each proceeding one from the other. There is shock, then horror, then rising fear, then a rapid-fire replay of more shock, horror, and fear as our mind races through the experience of seeing what is happening, seeing people trying to save their own lives as well as others’, seeing how it all so quickly ends…

Second those images reawaken us to the fact that our emotions are common to our species and its vernacular of belonging. “Empathy” can’t capture the full projection of ourselves, however briefly or maniacally, into the bodies and minds we see dying before us. We not only know as observers that their deaths are imminent but know in our pores and nerve endings, in our fleeting thoughts, and in our laceratingly raw emotions, that something of us is dying as they die—and yet we will live.

Third the twin towers’ images situate and instantiate the “moral meaning” of the images, placing what we see and feel in a context beyond sensation, a context of value and judgment that itself lays claims to and evokes our idea of a common collective human self and of somehow necessary collective action beyond emotions that the image seem to demand of us in response.

It’s to that third “moral meaning” dimension that, I believe, we need to return however briefly this morning, to pause and contemplate the degree to which we here can look back over the past 16 years, to ask what legacy the imagery of 9/11 has given us and why.

Here in this chapel I think that beyond lamentation over the tragedy, we need to ask what has become of that “moral meaning," that sense of our shared collective self, and of our collective action in response to the towers’ collapse.

America went to war after 9/11 and as you know, is today still at war in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria—and on a smaller scale in sometimes covert ways, in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Libya, the Philippines, and several of the “Stans” of Central Asia.

Nearly 1.3 million men and women are in the military, with 800,000 more in the reserves. Almost 500,000 of them are based in what the Pentagon jejunely calls “forward positions” overseas in more than 80 countries— while beyond that, U.S. Special Forces will carry out military operations or exercises in 138 countries (70% in other words) of all the countries in the world.

Much of this predated 9/11—but none of it is ending or even contemplated to end.

We live, in short, in an American-garrisoned world without precedent in human history, one far vaster than the British or Spanish or Ottoman empires, far greater in earlier times that the Roman, Egyptian, Babylonian, Moghul, or Chinese kingdoms.

This year our government will spend more than $1 trillion to prepare for and carry out war and to finance its collateral costs—for salaries and weapons, for transport and medical care, for nuclear weapons research and the detention of prisoners at places like Guantanamo, for servicing the massive debt accumulated over the past 70 years since World War II and servicing the broken bodies and minds of so many as well.

After the Cold War ended a quarter century ago, the social theorist Francis Fukuyama waxed on triumphantly about the "End of History," and Harvard biologist Stephen Pinker more recently has written no less confidently about the marked decline in human violence.

Yet since 2000, more than 12 million people have died in war, and as we worship here today, wars are ongoing in 16 countries —with the U.S. fighting in 8 of them.

Moreover, since 2000, America has spent more than $15 trillion on war — and since World War II more than $60 trillion (in current dollar terms). More, in other words, than the entire annual GDP of the planet. More than the economic output of six billion human beings.

So this morning, as we pause on this 16th anniversary of the “iconic” 9/11, let’s contemplate what sort of icons — religious images, messages, and moral meanings — come to mind.

In our avowed traditions, phrases like “Love thy neighbor…”, “swords into ploughshares…,” “do unto others….” constitute fragments of what people like us once brought to mind when we contemplated violence, hatred, and war.

But today in the overwhelming silence that afflicts us as a nation, they seem only fragments, just shards, mere remnants of what we once understood and sought for humankind.

For some here in Cambridge, it seems enough nowadays to berate this president, these wars, his belligerence as that which we must “resist”.

But rightly considered, I don’t think that’s enough. The vanities and cruelties, the sins, of Donald Trump are his, and though we are surely implicated in them if we keep silent, the far larger collective sins of America’s power and hubris, of vanity and greed are ours collectively, and not his alone.

Sixteen years ago today, two towers in New York fell suddenly to the ground, taking with them the lives of 3,000 men and women. It was an act of terror—one we cannot “forget.” We must thus “remember”—but beyond remembrance, what must we learn?