Blog by Sumana Harihareswara, Changeset founder

08 Nov 2001, 10:37 a.m.

So I listen to NPR and sometimes browse magazines and…

Hi, reader. I wrote this in 2001 and it's now more than five years old. So it may be very out of date; the world, and I, have changed a lot since I wrote it! I'm keeping this up for historical archive purposes, but the me of today may 100% disagree with what I said then. I rarely edit posts after publishing them, but if I do, I usually leave a note in italics to mark the edit and the reason. If this post is particularly offensive or breaches someone's privacy, please contact me.

So I listen to NPR and sometimes browse magazines and news-supply websites (e.g., Slate and Salon). Here's something I know I'm not alone in noticing:

The consensus seems to have arrived: the shorthand for referring to "the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11th" is "September 11th" or even "nine-eleven." When referring to the anxiety, increased alertness, anthrax scares, loss of civil liberties, war with Afghanistan, hastened economic recession, surges in outward shows of patriotism and bipartisanship, and other effects of the terrorist attacks, use "recent events," "all of this," "recent times," or similarly vague phrasing.

It's as though the notion that these are all components of some coherent national mood, and that the listener/reader knows this, is as implicit and taken-for-granted as the fact that George W. Bush lives in the White House and San Francisco is in California.

Orwell taught me to trust specifics and distrust easy, common generalities. What does it hide to say "September 11th" instead of spelling out the causes of current actions and attitudes? This phrasing implies that something unprecedented and ahistorical happened on September 11th, and focuses the listener on the events and their aftermath rather than their causes. Using "all of this" or "the current crisis" or "recent events" glosses over the actual actions and agents -- who is doing what to whom -- and keeps a person from specifically tracing and considering each trend and reaction. "After all, we're all a little nervous right now" and "the country right now" let the listener or reader forget that some people (e.g., Muslims, Middle Eastern people or those who resemble them, civil libertarians), in the US and abroad, have more to worry about than others, thanks to their neighbors and from the US government.

I know that most people who will read this try to make allowances for such insinuations when they use the mass media. But I find people around me using such phrases, too. Sure, we all need shorthand and abbreviations. But I want to kep track of how the way that we abbreviate important ideas makes certain thoughts easier than others.