Not unlike President George H.W. Bush, I am well-known in my circle for often sporting a rather bold choice in socks. Today being the anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States, in selecting my pedal coverings for the day I decided that I had two options. I could either mourn those who had died by choosing something dark and somber, or I could go with something that spoke more strongly of my gratefulness for being born and living in the Land of the Free.
Naturally, I chose the latter.
Clothing can provide us with the opportunity to thoughtfully and symbolically display what matters to us. I do not mean the more obvious message-bearing garment, such as a t-shirt with a slogan on it, but rather things which might not be visible to all, or bring to mind any immediate reference. When the iconography in question is obvious to everyone, such as wearing an American flag lapel pin on Independence Day, there is no need for explanation. However when there is no apparent meaning to the man sitting across from us that, for example, we happen to be wearing an orange-colored tie in honor of the birthday of a friend whose favorite color that is, we may rightly feel privately pleased that we are thus able to call to mind for ourselves things that are important.
The opportunity to visibly honor people and things we care about in what we wear is an ancient part of human culture, which has always been used to bind groups together. There is a line of relation, for example, between mercenary troops in the Middle Ages wearing the bright colors of a particular city they happened to be fighting for, in order to tell who was who on the battlefield, and the flashy uniforms worn on the football field to distinguish the players of one city from those of another. And as we all know, even those simply observing the fray often choose to wear clothing related to that being worn by those who are out on display, in order to feel a part of what is taking place.
Thus the choice on this anniversary of the 9/11 attacks to sport red, white, and blue, rather than black, was a deliberate one of celebrating life instead of focusing on death. Those who personally experienced the events of that day, and lost members of their family or good friends, will no doubt always feel the wound opened afresh on this anniversary. Such mourning will, no doubt, always be an occasion for an act of remembrance and an experience of sorrow in perpetuity.
Most of us do not fall into this category of actual survivors, and even for them time is passing more swiftly than we may realize. As a friend pointed out to our group at dinner last evening, the students whom she is now teaching were only four or five years old when 9/11 took place, meaning the anniversary has far less immediacy to them than it does to those of us who can recall exactly where we were. There will obviously come a time, many years from now, when there will be no one left alive who can answer questions like “How did 9/11 affect you?”
For today however, even those of us who are not survivors of the attacks themselves have the opportunity to show our respect for those who died. We can also display our solidarity with their survivors and with those who risked their lives to save others. And even more broadly, in making this a day to put out the personal bunting, as it were, we have the opportunity to reiterate an individual commitment to principles of liberty, such as representative government, freedom of speech, and freedom of worship, which were implicitly attacked on this day.
It may be seen in some corners as an unbelievably small thing to try to make an article of clothing into something more than what it is. However such an attitude in itself is a myopic, anti-intellectual form of pettiness. It denies the virtuous symbolism of public display as being a useful cipher both for lauding commonly held principles and distinguishing different ways of thinking throughout human history, from painted wooden shields bearing the symbols of different gods, to neckties printed with images of elephants or jackasses.
Since neither this scrivener nor, I suspect, most of my readers, are going to be called upon to give speeches, appear in panel discussions, or lead remembrance services on this anniversary of 9/11, we have to do what we can, where we are, to show what matters to us. Chances are, almost no one whom I run into today will know or even ask what sort of socks I have on. Yet I know that they are there, and I know what they mean for me. So even if I am the only person given pause to reflect today by periodically catching a glimpse of a humble pair of woven cotton foot coverings, it will have been worth having pulled them on this morning.