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On "September 11"

Geoff Nunberg

"Fresh Air" commentary, September 11, 2003

Back in 1979 when I was living in Rome, the singer Francesco de Gregori had an odd hit with a kind of alternative national anthem called "Viva l'Italia" [words, music]," which has since become a classic. The song is laced with an ironic affection for Italy with all its faults -- the tone is more like "My Funny Valentine" than the love-it-or-leave-it swagger of our patriotic country songs or the angry repudiations of our protest music.

"Viva l'Italia," it went, "plundered and betrayed... half garden and half jail. . . Italy with its eyes shut in the dark night, Italy unafraid." The last verse went: "Viva L'Italia, Italy of the 12th of December, Italy in its flags and Italy naked as always, Italy with its eyes open in the sad night, Italy that resists."

I had to ask an Italian friend about that reference to the 12th of December -- it turned out to be the day in 1969 when neo-fascists set off bombs in Milan and Rome that killed 16 people and wounded more than 100, initiating a long period of violence and instability.

The Italians are always using dates to refer to important events. In Rome alone there are streets named May 24, September 8, September 20, February 8, October 25, and November 4, among others, all of them commemorating various events of national signficance.

The Italians aren't alone in this. The French still refer to the major developments of the French revolution as the 9 Thermidor (the overthrow of Robespierre in 1794) and the 18 Brumaire (Napoleon's coup of 1799), using the names of the months in the revolutionary calendar, and they've kept up the practice for recent events. An article in Le Monde last week asked whether the socialists might be heading for "a new 21st of April," the date of the first round of the 2002 presidential elections when the the party was eliminated by the far-right party of Jean-Marie le Pen. The Germans use "June 17" as shorthand for the uprisings against the East German communist regime in 1953, and the Portuguese use "April 25" to refer to their 1974 revolution.

As it happens, we Americans are one of the few nations who don't refer to historical events this way. There's the fourth of July, of course, but we only use that date to refer to the annual holiday, not the approval of the Declaration of Independence by the Continental Congress in 1776. We talk about "Pearl Harbor," "V-E Day," and "the Kennedy assassination" not "December 7," "May 8," or "November 22."

September 11 is the one exception. That may be because the events of that day happened in several different places -- giving the date is more compact than saying "The terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and in a plane over Pennsylvania." But even so, we seem to feel the need to assign the date a special form that's distinct from the way we refer to dates in conversation. Since the attacks, "September 11" has been steadily losing ground to "9/11," which is now about six times as common in the press. That's the way we write a date in headines or on a on check, not what we say in conversation when someone asks for our birthday.

In fact for many people the "9/11" form has been detached from its calendric meaning, which is what leads them to pronounce it as "nine-one-one." That's partly due to a confusion with the police emergency number, of course. But we're never tempted to say "nine-one-one" when we're reading a date off a check stub.

Of course you could say that our reluctance to refer to events by their dates is simply a matter of avoiding ambiguity as to which year we're talking about. But people in other nations don't seem to have any problem understanding these references -- "Would that be next Brumaire 18th you're talking about, or the one back in 1799?"

For the French or Italians, that's the point of referring to events as "December 12" or "April 21" -- it appeals to the collective memory of a community linked by a common daily experience. You have the image of a people turning the pages of the calendar in unison and marking the important dates in red letters. It's the same sense of history that allows families to refer to the dates of birthdays and anniversaries without having to remind each other what their significance is.

Of course that familial sense of national community comes more naturally to a homogeneous people with a history that transcends regimes and revolutions. And we Americans don't really think of ourselves as a people in that sense -- when we talk about "the American people," we usually continue with "are" rather than "is." That may be why we're uncomfortable with the kind of patriotism you hear in de Gregori's Italian anthem. When my sister and talk about our relatives we can allow ourselves a tone of fond exasperation, without having to worry that anybody's going to accuse us of being anti-Nunberg .

As families go, at any rate, we Americans aren't good at remembering the dates of our anniversaries. Shortly after the Battle of Lexington and Concord in 1775, John Adams' wife Abigail wrote that the 19th of April would be "ever memorable for America as the Ides of March to Rome." But the only people who mark that date now only are the decidedly unfamilial far-rightists who associate it with Waco and the Oklahoma City bombing. Most Americans couldn't tell you when the shot heard round the world was fired -- or for that matter, by whom and at what.

That may very well be the fate of today's date, too, within a couple of generations. But in the meantime, there's something to be said for referring to the events simply as September 11, rather than with that bureacratic-sounding 9/11. It's only two extra syllables, and it locates the events where they happened, in the middle of our daily lives.


1. Cf. La Stampa, 2/28/99: "L'unica speranza, per il leader di Forza Italia, e' un nuovo 18 aprile." -- "The only hope, for the leader of Forza Italia [Berlusconi], is a new April 18 [the date of the 1948 referendum when the Christian Democrats defeated the Popular Front]." return

2.. In the six months following September 11, 2001, the form "9/11" was only about a third as common in the press as "September 11." return

3. As Benedict Anderson points out in Imagined Communities, the ritual of reading the daily newspaper played an important part in creating the modern sense of national community, with its immediate connection to the rhythms of daily life:

The obsolescence of the newspaper on the morrow of its printing... creates this extraordinary mass ceremony. ... The significance of this mass ceremony -- Hegel observed that newspapers serve modern man as a substitute for morning prayers -- is paradoxical. It is performed in silent privacy, in the lair of the skull. Yet each communicant is well aware that the ceremony he performs is being replicated simultaneously by thousands (or millions) of others of whose existence he is confident, yet of whose identity he has not the slightest notion. Furthermore, this ceremony is incessantly repeated at daily or half-daily intervals throughout the calendar. What more vivid figure for the secular, historically-clocked, imagined community can be envisioned? At the same time, the newspaper reader, observing exact replicas of his own paper being consumed by his subway, barbershop, or residential neighbors, is continually reassured that the imagined world is visibly rooted in everyday life…creating that remarkable confidence of community in anonymity which is the hallmark of modern nations. (p. 39)

Yet the newspaper alone can't explain why some nations refer to historical events by their dates while others don't. Nor, for that matter, can the tradition of referring to dates by saints' days -- the practice is as common in Northern Europe as in Catholic countries, though it is rare in the other anglo-saxon nations. return

4. I should make an exception for residents of Massachusetts who still remember when Patriot's Day was invariably celebrated on April 19, before it became a fete mobile like Presidents' Day and the others. return

Copyright 2002 Geoffrey Nunberg All rights reserved.