Much has already been written about 9/11, so I prefer approaching the subject from more obscure angles. Last year I addressed how it changed the otherwise timeless sci-fi genre. This year I'd like to address the tenuous relationship between 9/11 and humor.
Five years later, the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon remain one of those topics that Americans can never discuss with anything but reverence. Like the deaths of JFK, John Lennon, or (unfairly, because he doesn't deserve it) Kurt Cobain. Even faithful re-enactments like United 93 and World Trade Center have been met with a cool reception, as Americans just aren't ready to relive the day.
This makes 9/11 an extremely troubling subject for humorists. In a field where nothing is sacred, how do you address what many consider sacred? Most don't, and the few who try have come across as callous. A recent example: Ann Coulter, who considers herself a satirist, criticized an outspoken group of 9/11 widows as enjoying their husbands' deaths. She lost a lot of political capital, even among conservatives.
The humorlessness of 9/11 goes beyond the events of that day. A net of solemnity has been cast over other subjects: terrorism, armed forces, Islam, commercial flight. And I suppose that's fine. There are times where one needs to be serious, and an airport security checkpoint happens to be one of them. But there are also times for levity, and those moments are few and far between.
While the Bush administration has been successful in maintaining a national mood of anxiety and prickliness, the reason that we can't move on from 9/11 has little to do with politics. It's more a matter of history. Time heals all wounds, but open wounds take longer. It would help if America had some closure, in the form of neutralizing and eliminating Al-Qaeda's power and influence. But our nation has other enemies, some with well-financed support. The threat of future attacks is legitimate, and makes us justifiably edgy.
As a nation, we can't move on from 9/11 right now -- and should not be expected to do so -- because the tragedy is still fresh in our minds, and little can extinguish that. My theory is that we will never be ready, but future generations of Americans might. And maybe then can someone make light of 9/11 and succeed. To avoid controversy, though, they should wait until everyone who could be offended is long gone, and then add a few years to be on the safe side. Consider it the Rule Against Tragic Perpetuities.