“Bush did 9/11.”
By far, the winning joke of my seventh-grade class. Whether it was said at lunch or snuck in during history lectures, it always incited laughter among my peers.
I don’t know what exactly made it so funny. Maybe it was the random absurdity of the phrase. Or maybe it was just its stark contrast with the way I had treated 9/11 for most of my life.
Born just four months after that devastating September morning, I spent most of my elementary school years angry that I had missed such an impactful moment in history. Every Sept. 11, my school would read storybooks about the event, have moments of silence for the fallen victims and discuss how this national trauma “brought us all together” and how we “didn’t let the terrorists win.”
Even as I transitioned into high school, I remember being told, “You’re the first class for which 9/11 is history.” To me, 9/11 became like jukeboxes or cassette tapes — a relic of a different time that I felt bad for not experiencing.
What I did experience were memes — plenty of them. My teenage years were when 9/11 jokes truly hit their peak and internet conspiracy theories became popularized. I can still remember countless 9/11 memes on my Instagram Explore page: Harambe photoshopped amidst the twin towers’ smoke; former President George H. W. Bush posing behind the burning towers; and Mike Myers as the Cat in the Hat preparing to swing a bat at the World Trade Center. Videos of conspiracy theories of how “9/11 was an inside job” were not an unusual sight to see passed through middle and high school group chats and were watched for either entertainment or to have a cheap laugh.
And for the majority of my teenage years, I didn’t really have any issue with 9/11 memes or conspiracy theories — that was until I watched Paul Greengrass’s “United 93.”
“United 93” is a biographical movie that depicts the events of 9/11, specifically concerning the hijacking that occurred on United Airlines Flight 93, in which 40 passengers and crew aboard the flight fought against the terrorist hijackers that would ultimately result in the plane crashing with no survivors. The filmmakers worked closely with the passengers’ families to ensure the story was as accurate as possible, and 10% of the film’s gross income from opening weekend was used to fund the creation of a memorial for the 9/11 victims.
The film was extremely uncomfortable and unsettling to watch. The movie was shot with hand-held cameras, filmed in an airplane and contained dialogue from a transcript of the cockpit’s tape recorder from the actual event.
After watching the movie, I felt compelled to look more into the tragedy. I learned about each victim’s story and their families, and I listened to the testimonies of the eyewitnesses who saw the towers fall. In the pit of my stomach was a deep embarrassment for how many times I had laughed about 9/11.
But isn’t humor a coping mechanism? A Psychology Today article — titled “When do Tragedies Become Funny?” — states that “when we are overwhelmed by tragic events … humor is a useful tool as a defense mechanism.” Similarly, Patt Schwab, a motivational keynote speaker, shared that humor often “helps us feel powerful again” and the same Psychology Today article stated that humor can bring about “other viewpoints, perspectives and values.” It can be laughter that brings a nation together during its darkest time and creates connections between us that might have not existed otherwise.
But what about people who didn’t experience that trauma? My perspective on 9/11 was shaped by humor, and I didn’t use it as a coping mechanism. I just saw it as entertainment. It was only after I watched “United 93” that I realized that I attach the phrase “Bush did 9/11” to Sept. 11, 2001. Those two starkly contrasted ideas are ingrained as one in my mind, which begs the question, can we laugh about traumas we didn’t experience?
Take Taika Waititi’s hit comedy-drama “Jojo Rabbit” as an example; the movie’s premise is about a 10-year-old Nazi youth who is forced to confront his beliefs when he realizes his mother is sheltering a teenage Jewish girl upstairs. The majority of the movie retains a light and comedic tone that portrays Nazis and an imaginary Adolf Hitler in a goofy and moronic manner. Some critics felt that the humor and tone of the movie were too inappropriate for the subject matter: IndieWire’s Eric Kohn stated, “The cartoon Nazis in ‘Jojo Rabbit’ are so far removed from reality … Waititi has made a sugary fantasy in the most unlikely places. But in the process, it buries the awful truth.” Other critics have agreed that the movie “sidestep[ped] the atrocities” and “fail[ed] to attack or even really notice [the] evil” that had existed during the time of the Holocaust. However, Waititi defends his movie’s combination of humor and tragedy by emphasizing that “humor [is a way] to dismantle these regimes built on intolerance and hate.”
Even now, as we live in a pandemic, I speculate how this tragic time will be remembered. With over 216,000 deaths, 7,000,000 cases and 20.5 million unemployed in the U.S., I find it strange to see T-shirts adorned with toilet paper rolls and masks, printed with “I Survived Toilet Paper Apocalypse 2020,” or to see coronavirus-themed Christmas ornaments. It’s true that humor is funny and a form of stress relief that can help one cope with this uncertain and crazy time, but I think it’s also important to think of the consequences that humor can have — especially regarding our history, it can gloss over the true severity of the situation.
Will future generations look back on this moment in history — consisting of a starkly divided nation, racial tension, a massive number of American deaths and a sharp rise in unemployment and poverty — and joke about the toilet paper fights at Costco?
Yuriko Chavez wants to continue to use humor and memes as a way to relieve stress and cope, but not to undermine the severity of the situation.