Terry Jones, the Gainesville, FL pastor who threatened to burn the Koran on September 11th, has received huge amounts of media attention over the last week. Like many others, I could not help but tune in and watch the event unfold. While many commentators have chastised mass media for giving a marginal character the equivalent of an international megaphone and allowing him to wreck havoc on global politics, the event made me realize just how contested the anniversary of the tragedy had become.
We craft narratives about events and they are not inconsequential. Narratives provide a collective representation, complete with emotive power and political meanings, that are passed from one generation to the next. Narratives, in other words, are the foundation upon which collective memory is built. Viewed this way, it is not surprising that 9/11 contested. Different individuals and groups have various interests and, consequently, would like to see different narratives take hold.
For some, 9/11 should be about remembering those that were lost on that fateful day and those that continue to fight 9 years later. For others, 9/11 should serve as a reminder that moderates must prevail over religious fundamentalists in both the Christian and Muslim faith. And, for others, 9/11 should remind us what it means to be American, which can often be translated as “white” and “Christian.” The latter is not a new response. Deborah Schildkraut, a political scientist at Tufts University, documented a similar response after Pearl Harbor.
While it is not new, it is an impulse that we should acknowledge and, then, reject. Embracing a narrative of fear and ethnocentrism not only ignores the diversity inherent in American identity, but lays the foundation for a narrative that will perpetuate religious, cultural and ethnic distortions for generations to come.