Why do we call it 9/11?

November 2, 2010
Billboard in Kosovo. Image by Shkumbin Saneja, licensed under Creative Commons.

Despite all the attention given to re­membering the al-Qaeda attacks of September 11, 2001, little attention has been given to one conspicuous aspect--the event has no name.

We don't refer to the issuing of the Magna Carta as 6/15 (the date in 1215 when the document was published). The horrible event of Novem­ber 22, 1963, is called "the JFK assassination," not 11/22. It's "the Challenger explosion," not 1/28, and "the Oklahoma City bombing," not 4/19. Nor were these events referred to or identified by their date of occurrence in the confusing early days and months after they happened.

Our reference to 9/11 is empty of substance. We aren't explicitly referring to anything about 9/11 except that it was September 11. So what's in a name—or, in this case, what's in no name?

On some fuzzy, sub­con­scious level, it may be that 9/11 caught on because 911 is the emergency phone number—the digits to be dialed in case of extreme crisis. If the attack had occurred on 9/10 or 9/12, perhaps we wouldn't be referring to this disaster by the date.

In any case, nearly a decade after the attack, we are still debating just what it meant or means. Was it a battle in the clash between Islam and Christianity? Was it Islam's declaration of war on the West? Or something else?

What 9/11 means is still debated. And surely it's better that we adopt no name for it than adopt a specious and misleading name. To come up with a name that suggests the attack was a case of Islam versus Christianity, or Islam versus the West, would be a de­structive act of misnaming. What happened on that day was an attack by one group of Mus­lims. All of Islam did not attack the U.S. on Sep­tember 11 any more than all of Chris­tianity attacked Okla­­homa City when the extremist Chris­tian Tim­othy Mc­Veigh bombed it on April 19, 1995.

But just calling it 9/11 may leave the event too wide open for misinterpretation. It is ominous that more Ameri­cans now think of 9/11 as Islam's attack on America than did so in the early days and months following the attack. (In those early days, politicians across the political spectrum were careful to indicate that al-Qaeda was not representative of all of Islam or the Islamic world.)

Failing to name 9/11 effectively may confirm the as­sumption that "everything changed" on 9/11. In the days and months after 9/11, many pundits declared the death of irony and heralded a day when American culture would become forevermore deeper and more serious. That didn't happen. We're now no less addicted to mass-produced spectacle and ob­sessive but shallow celebrity culture than we were before 9/11.

Failing to substantially name what happened on 9/11 also helps underwrite the open-endedness of Amer­ica's war on terrorism. The 9/11 event becomes a blank check for that war, a war that lacks a specific goal.

A military response is not the only or the most important response that 9/11 should elicit. Economic and social problems in the Arab world create important differences between the Arab world and the West. These problems and differences cannot be successfully ad­dressed simply by the blunt club of military means. Many of those problems resonate at the religious level, and if the religions of the world—including Chris­tianity—are to prove to their detractors that religion is not inherently and finally a force for violence, they will have to demonstrate that by means more constructive and complicated than backing one "side" or another militarily.

So let the stunned silence end. It's time to substantially designate the meaning and significance of 9/11. For the sake of peace and the sake of the world, let the real naming begin.



My wedding anniversary is September 11. Perhaps that's why I've always referred to the events named in this article as "the terrorist attacks of 2001".

What name would you suggest?

The problem with coming up with an alternative name for 9/11, other than the date itself, is that the attacks were in multiple states. (Unlike, say, "Pearl Harbor.") What would you suggest?

Also, you may note that the Madrid train bombings also still go by that date -- 3/11.

Re: What Name Would You Suggest?

I agree with the conundrum regarding naming a tragedy that occurred in multiple states on the same date. The date 9/11 refers to disasters not only in New York but also in Washington, D.C. (the Pentagon) and Pennsylvania. Any attempt to name the event takes on militaristic connotations. (We cannot even agree on a suitable NY monument, yet alone a name for the event.) Have we given that day an enigmatic date so we as a nation can do with it what we wish, whether that be for peace-making endeavors or to keep the flames of war burning bright?

Monuments and Meanings

A serene, meaning-filled monument park has been created to commemorate those who perished at the Pentagon. In Pennsylvania, a wind-swept field and an interpretive station stand for all who would ponder the meaning of what happened on Sept. 11, 2001.

Yet nearly 10 years after the collapse of the World Trade Center, apparently no one can agree how to create a fitting memorial to what happened there. Parties bickering with one another, arguments over design and architecture, debates over that for which the site would be used (business, memorial/ museum, burial ground...) all have kept the space a giant wound in the soul of the U.S. spirit.

I do not argue that a fitting memorial at the NY site would cure all ills and erase all angers. I understand that where so many people with so many beliefs died, total agreement on a suitable memorial-burial ground would be difficult. Yet do we not owe it to those who died - and those that live for them - a place where "9/11" can be a place for healing and not an endless place of propaganda?

Naming an event involves much more than a linguistic or symbolic act, though such naming has powerful importance. However, memorializing the site must also be seen as important as well.

Letter from Paul O. Bischoff

Rodney Clapp’s misleading essay de­serves no applause on the issue of naming 9/11 (“Why do we call it 9/11?” Nov. 16). Apparently it did not occur to Clapp that 9/11 occurred in three locations on the same day, unlike his apples-to-oranges examples of the signing of the Magna Carta and the Challenger explosion.

There’s no debate about what happened on 9/11, and Clapp makes a weak case for any ongoing debate on the matter. The more I read his essay, the more I felt that only he was having the debate --in his head. As for his assertion that not naming 9/11 endorses the war on terror as “open-ended,” may I ask the author to name the specific objective of World War II? I suspect that even a specific objective would never justify war for Clapp.

Paul O. Bischoff
Wheaton, Ill.