Pardon me for commenting on what’s probably the least disturbing aspect of the horrors in Israel this week. But one must swim in one’s depth.
I learned from a bright-eyed reporter on MSNBC yesterday that the Israeli death toll, proportionate to the United States population, was now up to the equivalent of “nine 9/11s.”
Can we not?
I understand the wish to wake people up from their numb-scrolling, but no, this 9/11 reference is dumb, degrading and ultimately meaningless.
First of all, try to imagine nine 9/11s. You can’t. It reminds me of the great speechwriting seminar leader Mike Long’s send-up of a furniture company that measured its annual production by saying it had made enough chairs that if you stacked them end to end they would reach to the moon and back. “Chairs to the moon!” Mike cries.
Secondly: The tragedy of 9/11 was never about what a huge proportion of the American population died that day. It was about who died, where they died, how they died and why—and what it meant to all of civilization. That’s what this Israel story should be about too. Comparing it to 9/11 won’t make people feel like they felt on 9/11; it will make them feel nothing.
Comparing the atrocity in Israel to 9/11 ultimately undermines its significance—just as it would have diminished the atrocity of 9/11 to compare the casualties to those at the Battle of Chancellorsville. And just as it did diminish 9/11 when people compared it to Pearl Harbor. And did it change anybody’s behavior in 2020, when people senselessly and ceaselessly repeated that the COVID death toll was “a 9/11 every day”?
The terrible facts of this horrible moment really should be enough to say on this score, without drunkenly time-traveling to whatever other historical moment you think your audience happens to know. And if your audience has so limited a frame of reference that it can only be impressed by comparisons to 9/11, then they are not citizens worth communicating with.
They’re either rockheads who will never change their minds—or intellectual weather vanes, able to be turned 180 by every blusterer who comes along. Including the next wise-guy, who will no doubt calculate the per-capita equivalent of how many 9/11s the state of Palestine has just suffered.
And speaking of unintentionally diminishing the significance of this war with a dunderheaded comparison—as I was writing this, a correspondent just called this “the most horrific slaughter of Jews since the Holocaust.”
World War II is the other historical event that Pavlovian pundits point to, as I wrote several years ago when a Republican presidential candidate named Ben Carson was using ill-fitting Nazi analogies:
He uses them, of course, for the same reason Internet trolls resort to them so frequently: He doesn’t know much about the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution, or the Sexual Revolution. He doesn’t know the Great Potato Famine from the Great Leap Forward. He knows not about Nebuchadnezzar, and little more about ancient Greece, and his idea of ancient Rome is before Mussolini showed up. …
So when Carson is trying to get ignorant Americans alarmed about social catastrophes going on right under their noses, what’s he going to compare it to? The 100 Years’ War?
People who lean on Nazi references are usually the badly educated attempting to lead the uneducated.
Just like Hitler!
Again: Mine aren’t the most germane remarks of the moment. But dumb historical comparisons are worse than no historical comparisons at all. And they’re not the solution to numb-scrolling, they’re one of the causes.