The Public Knowledge of 9/11

SEPT. 11, 2004

In the three years since 9/11, we've begun to understand that it's possible to know what happened without knowing what happened. It's the difference between knowledge that is both private and communal -- our memories of where we were, what we saw, what we lost -- and knowledge that is truly public. Some of what we need to know publicly has been provided by the report of the 9/11 commission. Other answers are lacking.

It's striking to almost anyone whose memories of that day are fresh to watch the crushing immediacy of the events of Sept. 11, 2001, turn, so to speak, into "9/11" -- a symbol, a forensic and intelligence and financial problem, and, above all, a political rallying cry. It's striking to see the emotional complexity squeezed out of the day even as our sense of its historic complexity grows. We're at a stage where gains in public understanding are matched by a strange attrition.

There is still, for instance, a deep reluctance to look too closely at the harder edges of the horror. Every mention of the day seems to require a picture of average New Yorkers as they look tearfully upward, and, of course, the sight of the president with firefighters at ground zero is the stuff of endless election-year commercials. But while it has become possible to use the terrorist attack as a plot device on stage and on television, it is somehow less possible to represent the critical moments when the planes struck and the buildings fell. The footage that we thought we would never stop seeing is now suddenly very hard to see.

Some things are behind us -- the memorial design competition, for instance --but the number is actually very small. You can watch a time-lapse film of ground zero over the past three years on the Project Rebirth Web site. It shows plenty of activity. But that is merely the nucleus of an entire universe of legal, financial and political proceedings, many of them a long way from resolution.

It is the nature of historic events to gain and lose complexity simultaneously. The moment vanishes, and what we are left with are impressions, re-creations and the solid residue of fact, which doesn't merely lie there waiting to be picked up but must be carefully elicited. For all our knowing, there is still so much we don't completely understand, like the inner workings of the terrorists' minds, how the attack affected the long-term health of New Yorkers and why so many first responders died.

Sept. 11, 2001, is a central event in this nation's history. It's important that we who live most immediately in its shadow press hard to learn everything that can be learned about that day and to make sure that nothing is allowed to fade into the world of the publicly unknowable.