The Sounds of Silence on 9/11

A famous left wing professor has called for silence to commemorate 9/11.

America is about to be engulfed in a tidal wave of 9/11 commemoration. There has never been anything like it before, so as a society we are constructing the rules for the procedure from scratch. But it might be better if we could first step back for a moment and ask a more basic question: why commemorate a horrific and tragic event like 9/11 at all? Does it even make sense, or might it ultimately be counterproductive?. . .

Since terrorism is a communicative act, responding to it communicatively legitimizes the original utterance, making it more vivid and more effective. The best way to deny effectiveness to any kind of communication is to ignore it, to fail to respond to it in any way. To respond to a communication is to assent to its meaning and function.  

That is the last thing we should want to achieve.  Our insistence on recalling 9/11 is one symptom of our failure to recognize what it meant and therefore to devise a way to prevent future acts of a similar kind. --Professor of linguistics, Robin Lakoff writing at Berkeley's expert blog on September 6, 2011.

Professor Lakoff's attempt to rationalize a response of silence to the violence of 911 is the greatest communication gift that could be given to the violent supremacists that held sovereign control of those four aircraft with the intention of killing tens of thousands innocent victims on that fateful day in 2001.

The hijackers sought to symbolically showcase their lust for death against the American love of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The families who lost loved ones and the American community that felt a sense of rupture in this sensational act, do not deserve the silence of American academics allergic to patriotism. Moreover, we are right to derive the symbolic significance of this modest proposal- the shaming and isolation of both families and community who seek commemoration and validation of the meaning lost in those lives taken on 9/11.

When hate crimes occur on college campuses, I have never heard a college professor call for silence in response to the loss. The strategic reversal here, speaks volumes of the academic culture that seeks to make a coy identification with attackers on 9/11. Silence is acceptance and professor Lakoff's proposal of silence is one which I reject. I will not be silent. What happened on 9/11 was a hateful despicable act and I grieve the loss of families and I affirm the positive sense of community embodied in the American nation.

I rather doubt that Professor Lakoff has ever refused to attend a funeral or any other epideictic communication event commemorating a victim in hopes of depriving the assailant the validation of their message.  Moreover, I am quite confident that Professor Lakoff would rightly object to someone rationalizing such behavior if she suffered a personal loss deeply meaningful to her.  The unavoidable conclusion to be drawn from such a gross misjudgment posted to Berkely's website of "experts" is that the losses on 911 are not at all personally meaningful to her and that an era of silence would communicate the perfect message of support for her patriotic ambivalence.   

When Adolf Hitler in a speech anticipating the violence of the Third Reich told an enthusiastic crowd in 1939, "Who after all speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?," he was invoking a basic principal of barbaric behavior:  the subjugated are content to abide in silence when confronted with crushing systemic violence.   The world's continuing struggle to even admit what happened to the Armenians early in the 20th century is a testament to how dangerous Professor Lakoff's advice is.  Silence is the necessary prelude to the escalating annihilations that have haunted human civilization since its inception. 

Fortunately, Americans have not generally abided by such shameful cheerleading for silence in the face of cowering violence like that offered by Professor Lakoff.  Even in the very midst of this crushing blow of terror on September 11, 2001, passenger Todd Beamer on flight 93 rallied several of his fellow travelers to deflect the fist of hate aimed at the nation's capitol.   Though the resistance would cost them and their fellow passengers their precious and meaningful lives, Beamer and others did not sit idly silent in their seats.  Instead, they launched a physical and now symbolic counter attack after reading the 23rd Psalm.  We remember among the many victims now silent, a hero who was not silent when he called out to his friends in the face of intimidation to be silent, "Let's Roll!"

"What hurts the victim most is not the physical cruelty of the oppressor, but the silence of the bystander." -Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel.

Ben Voth is the chair of Communication Studies at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas. 

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