I know this is the week we are supposed to be thinking about 9/11. I am, and I'll get to it. But as a linguist, I cannot help also mourning that Alex the parrot died last week. He lived at Brandeis University in the lab of psychologist Irene Pepperberg. Many linguists think of language as the result of a genetic mutation unique to humans, but Alex challenged that idea. He knew over a hundred words, and was even given to saying things like "I love you" at the appropriate times! In a facetious mode, I sometimes think that another case against human language as uniquely sophisticated is how baggily it can be used by those not blessed with the gift of gab. A demonstration this week was Mayor Bloomberg's statement regarding his preference that as the years go by, our commemorations of 9/11 become briefer. "I think the Jews do it right. They have a headstone unveiling a year after the funeral, and that's sort of the time that you sort of stop the mourning process and start going forward." I "sort of" want to call Toastmasters for an intervention. But actually, the content of what Bloomberg said is more interesting than the form. I get where he's coming from. As it happens, my wife's late grandfather's unveiling is next month. It is my first experience of this tradition and it strikes me as just right. However, I'm not sure applying the Jewish unveiling model to 9/11 is quite the thing right now. There are too many people who are recruiting it for self-centered and idle uses in very public ways. We've got, for example, movies about 9/11, making money. Actors are making up and doing multiple takes to re-enact something that involved the deaths of 3000 people, so soon after the actual event that relatives of the victims are still actively grieving. I recall a movie about the O.J. Simpson case cranked out before the trial had even happened. That was blatant exploitation, and I see little difference between The O.J. Simpson Story and World Trade Center or United 93. Then don't forget University of Colorado Ethnic Studies prof Ward Churchill terming the people working in the Towers "little Eichmanns" toiling blindly for an evil regime. That he would apply such a recreationally caustic analogy to innocent people who were barbecued in that pit reveals someone more committed to performance than basic human compassion. Rapper KRS-One in 2004 asserted that "9/11 affected them down the block; the rich, the powerful, those that are oppressing us as a culture." The catharsis of creative alienation must have felt good, but at the price of dismissing the deaths of countless black people in the Towers, who KRS-One would presumably not consider to be "thems." And so it goes. The fires were barely out in the pit before people started using 9/11 as food for their ids and ideologies, as if what happened that day was a comic book story rather than the barbaric mass murder that it was. 3000 people died at the hands of medievals among us in the modern world. Osama Bin Laden's latest public statement is truly a glimpse of the mentality of someone living almost a thousand years ago, deeming Arab rulers "vassals" of the West, and urging his flock to join the "caravan of martyrs." That kind of phraseology, with its theatrical air, heavy on broadly resonant words and phrases difficult to square with the complexities of real life, was typical of semiliterate pre-Enlightenment societies. Bin Laden speaks to us from that world, himself framing global events as a kind of comic book. But he is also in this world, able to make it such that thousands of people never knew that when their loved one left home that morning, they would never see them again, maybe soon submitting a toothbrush or hairs from a pillow for DNA analysis so that a charred remnant of a human being could be identified as the person they loved. Back to "little Eichmanns," "them," and major-release flickers. There is so much of this kind of static out there on 9/11 that for my money, our commemorations must maintain a degree of weight and substance to counterbalance the noise. Eventually, that day will have receded enough in time that for people seeking a thrill or a buck by tweaking raw nerves, 9/11 will seem too "yesterday" to ride on. Maybe then we can, as Bloomberg has hinted, stop reciting the names of the dead. But for the next several years, I hope we will begin with Gordon Aamoth, 32, who called his family to say he was okay after the first tower was hit but did not after the second tower, which he was in, was hit. We will end with Igor Zukelman, 29, a Ukranian immigrant to whom a classmate wrote on a commemorative website Spi s mirom, "Sleep in peace."
John McWhorter teaches linguistics at Columbia University. He is the author of Losing the Race: Self-Sabotage in Black America.