Sunday, September 11, 2011

Happy 9/11, Everybody!

Note: For's counterpoint on the remembrance of 9/11, please consider Flavor Flav's "9/11 Is NOT a Joke."

Weirdly serious or threatening signage is par for the course in Florida, something I've gone into before. Even official government signage gets in on the act. The oddest thing I've ever seen on a county sheriff's/county road construction sign read, "REMEMBER TO LOCK YOUR DOORS!" with the exclamation point and everything. I saw it on a midnight drive, by an upscale gated community, on a road that sees almost zero traffic after dinnertime. Still, there it was, flashing urgently. Given the area's crime rate and the sign's complete absence of utility for all but the 5pm commute, it might as well have said, "BEWARE OF SHARKBITE."

The following was sent in by reader Katye, who was driving on State Road 54 in Pasco County and saw one of those emergency notification signs making sure that, when it came to September 11th, she'd never forget. (Update: I was being facetious about the "never forget" thing, but Katye responded to say that there is indeed an ominous "NEVER FORGET" sign just down the road as well.)

It would be nice to know why it's there, beyond a temporary surge of tasteless patriotism. It would be cool, in fact, if it just said, "The Pasco Sheriff's Dept. Salutes the Heroes of the NYPD & FDNY." What's not to like or admire about that?

"Heroes," at this point, is so generic, the term so overused, under-thought and clumsily trammelled by war pimps and whores for picturebook sentimentality that its vagueness rankles. Who are the heroes anyway? If one wants to be a curmudgeon about it, the death toll mostly includes people doing what is required by their jobs (cops, firemen) and helpless victims, taken by surprise, trapped by death, waiting for the ugly and inevitable — like quail or septuagenarians in Dick Cheney's gunsights.

I can't do anything about all the ugly things done in the name of the actual heroes of 9/11, and neither can they. After so many trashy invocations of their name, it's tough to remember to wish them peace and redirect disgust strictly at the bumpersticker-makers, flagmakers and warmakers.

Still, this sign wouldn't stand out as mawkishly (or cynically) sentimental as it does, if the area in general had much of a sense of history in its public displays. These signs flash well-wishes for a happy Thanksgiving, a happy holidays and a happy Independence Day, but they remain dark for lots of other honored and un-honored dead. They don't remember those killed in the Alamo, on the Maine or during Pearl Harbor. They don't pay respects to the genocide of the civilizations of the so-called "Five Civilized Tribes." They don't light up for the surrender at Appomattox, the signing of the Empancipation Proclamation or on MLK's birthday. You don't see other kinds of signage for these things, either. And sure, a lot of those events happened far away from Florida, but the World Trade Center is over 1,100 miles from Pasco County, too.

Maybe the sign might seem less forced or exceptional if the local history center imbued the local dialogue with more awareness of our connections to the past. But for that to happen, it would need to be more than a deeply disappointing 5,000 words of displays surrounded by tens of thousands of square feet of goofy, kitschy collectibles, movies and interactive shit — like pioneers, Native Americans, fishermen and a railroad magnate all got together to build the interior of a T.G.I. Friday's.

Maybe it might feel different if arguably the biggest outward display of history in the area (and certainly the most seen, daily) wasn't allegedly the largest Confederate flag in the world. News reports, of course, wrongly refer to it as the "Stars and Bars," and supporters, of course, describe it as a symbol of cultural heritage and the political idea of states' rights (they forget the "to own people" part). That pitch might work if it weren't the Confederate battle flag, under which towns were set ablaze, under which black men were executed or pressed into servitude, and their women were raped.

The racism isn't the point here. Nor is any governmental endorsement; that flag actually stands on a small sliver of private ground. Nor is it that there aren't museums to be found, if one goes looking for them and tries to ignore what the desperate chattiness of their elderly docents tells you about how lonely the places are. It's just that, within a context usually devoid of history — apart from drunken fake-pirate parades — it's tough not to notice that the two biggest current outward displays are both, in one way or another, a kind of war porn. In this climate, all the attendant signifiers of remembering the heroes of 9/11 feels a lot like remembering, in 1864, the heroes of Fort Sumter. It perversely celebrates and re-commemorates the first shot in a costly, devastating attrition that hasn't stopped yet.