How to Remember 9/11

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Doug Kanter / AFP / Getty

A couple embraces on the one year anniversary of 9/11

If actions speak louder than elegy, it tells you where we are that the team coverage on the eve of the sixth anniversary of 9/11 alternated between General Petraeus' performance on Capitol Hill and Britney Spears' performance at the MTV Video Music Awards. Osama returned to prime time, only to be mocked for his "impotence" and apparent need for Grecian Formula. A New Jersey community that lost 100 people that day has had to delay expansion of its memorial because fundraising fell short. September 11 falls once again on a Tuesday, we are six years away from the fire, and wondering what that means.

A USA Today poll found that more than two thirds of Americans view 9/11 as the most memorable news event of their lifetime. Far from pressing it neatly between the pages of a heavy book, to be retrieved only on special occasions, the day in memory has gained in power and urgency. Nearly one third said the event changed the way they lived — which is up from 18% five years ago, as though it was possible to see the change, or at least safe to admit it without having to swat away charges that "the terrorists win" if you do anything differently.

The mass murder remains, more than ever, a collage of personal tragedies. The names are read out one at a time, people march with buttons bearing the face of the one they lost, lay a wreath at a memorial. Thirteen candles lit in the church that lost 13 members. People make mourning small enough to capture and coax into service: was launched as the micromemorial, a vehicle for people to use the day to do something for someone else. So far 284,185 people have pledged a good deed, to donate blood, take clothes to the Goodwill, knit socks for soldiers, skip lunch and give the money away.

There are many people, of course, who don't need to be reminded to remember. There are the moms sending children who never met their fathers off to their first day of kindergarten. There are the first responders who are discovering that they are sick and in need of treatment, including 2000 New York City fire fighters. There are the presidential candidates who regularly patrol the sacred ground; Giuliani goes there in every speech, Edwards talked about confronting terrorism a few blocks from Ground Zero, and the entire political debate this week is wrapped around the progress of a war that magnifies memory and distorts it. The 9/11 attack united us; the response to it divides us.

The homefront remains on alert, but in a leisurely, one-eye-open kind of way. Police at the Pentagon scrape the air for signs of radiation or chemical attack, track the wind direction to guide escaping employees. But 9/11 Commission chairs Tom Kean and Lee Hamilton used the anniversary to remind people that security remains a shield with holes. Most air cargo is still not screened, the high-tech bomb detectors are indefinitely delayed, and Congress demands tighter standards for drivers' licenses but won't fund them. The broadcast industry has until 2009 to turn over the spectrum that rescuers need to beam signals through concrete and steel. Three years ago, Kean and Hamilton observe, their commission noted that the Department of Homeland Security reported to 88 congressional committees and subcommittees. At least that number has now been pared down — to 86.

Some people fear complacency; others fear forgetting. Others have only limited space in memory, and the day is overwritten by the events that followed, by war and hurricane and every family's private trials. But the record can't be erased, any more than a year can have 364 days, and anything can bring it back full screen, like a glance at a skyline, a siren in the distance, a prayer that comes as reflex as you walk to work and remember the day they never came home.