The terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001 were a turning point for the United States and the world. Every year, it’s become a tradition for institutions, both public and private, to recognize the shifts in our lives that the attacks, and the response to them, caused and attempt to honor the lives of almost 3,000 victims.
Of course, not all of these attempts are successful. Every year, there are some 9/11 tributes that go viral because of their tastelessness, whether they’re well-intentioned or seem like more of a cash grab. This year, the most notable “tributes” were a Texas mattress store’s ad featuring two men falling into towers of mattresses and a Florida Walmart that made a World Trade Center out of cases of Coke Zero.
These displays, as poorly thought-out as they were, at least left individual victims out of their cash grabs. The same cannot be said of the crass attempt by SA to honor the victims of 9/11, not only by using the names, faces and lives of victims without their or their family’s consent, but also by advertising the university by encouraging the use of #TUHonors911.
When a killing occurs, information about the victims is only sometimes relevant to the public interest. In some circumstances, the family of the victim voluntarily tells the public about their lives to help us understand what a loss their death was. In other situations, such as when trans women are killed, information about their lives and their deaths is relevant to show the public that they were victims of hate crimes and did nothing to “deserve” their deaths, which would ideally spur action to prevent more killings.
The alleged purpose for spreading stories about 9/11 victims is to “humanize” them. The problem is that that implies that there’s some benefit to humanizing them. When Black Lives Matter movements insist that we remember the names and faces of victims, it’s because we would otherwise forget. No one is in danger of forgetting about 9/11. Even if you can’t remember watching where you were when you heard about it, or watching it on TV, you can’t forget it, because current US foreign policy, and world events, are still largely a response to it.
With victims of 9/11, knowing the circumstances of their lives and deaths isn’t relevant to the public interest. Legislation to prevent more terrorist attacks has already been put in place, and had enough support that spreading the stories of victims was unnecessary. The victims of 9/11 can’t tell us how they would like their stories to be told. They lost control of the narratives of their lives on September 11th, and taking their stories and using them for our purposes is taking even more control from them.
The university community was also encouraged to spread the stories of the victims on social media with #TUHonors911. Bringing the university into the story makes a kind of sense, if the idea was to pull the university community together around a common cause, but what cause was that supposed to be? If this hashtag was supposed to start a conversation, what were we supposed to talk about?
There’s criticism to be made of the response to 9/11, but any criticism is clearly inappropriate in a conversation about victims. Seeing members of the university remembering 9/11 isn’t more meaningful in any real way than seeing people from around the country remembering 9/11, and might overshadow the voices of those who might have some actual perspective on the tragedy, such as those who witnessed or survived it.
The only reasonable purpose of the hashtag, then, is to advertise TU as a place where 9/11 is remembered, which is absolutely disgusting. We shouldn’t be trying to profit off of death, but that’s the only clear purpose that this hashtag has. Posting with it could also be a way for some social media users to advertise their own empathy without having to make any real statement or do anything to substantially honor victims. Public grief has its place, but it should be reserved for those who knew the deceased, not strangers.
I don’t believe that anyone on SA, or anyone that posted about a victim on social media, actually intended to disrespect anyone, but this was still an ill-conceived and irreverent marketing campaign. In addition to the inherent problems with attaching the university’s name to an alleged tribute to victims, and using those victim’s names, faces and stories without permission or introspection, there were small mistakes in the campaign; in the email that was sent out, the victim count of 2,996 included the 19 hijackers who perpetrated and died during the attacks.
There are ways to respectfully honor the victims of 9/11. SA could have left the university’s name out of their hashtag and left individual victims out of it, or simply encouraged students to honor victims in their own way.
Even better, we could have made an effort to honor the victims with more than words, and emulate the more than 400 firefighters and law enforcement officials who died in New York City while trying to rescue survivors, by engaging in community service as a university. It would be more work than making wristbands, and we wouldn’t be able to show others how sad we are on social media, but we could actually make the world a better place while respecting the memories of those who died.