There’s an episode from the first season of 30 Rock called “Fireworks.” In it, Jack Donaghy, the General Electric executive played by Alec Baldwin, suggests to Liz Lemon, the SNL-esque showrunner played by Tina Fey, that what America needs is more fireworks. This is in line with Jack’s persona on the show–he is a stereotypical rich white man who wants to see America Made Great Again, and fireworks, to him, symbolize everything right about America. So he decides to sell NBC executives a Fireworks special broadcast live from 30 Rockefeller Center.
“The more I think about it, the more jazzed I’m getting about these fireworks,” he tells Liz in an early scene. “That is what we’re selling at the pitch meeting: Spectacle. That’s what people want. The Romans knew it, Louis Quatorze knew it, Wolfowitz knows it.” (Wolfowitz being a reference to Paul Wolfowitz, one of George W. Bush’s senior staffers who was one of the main cheerleaders for two big, gross recent spectacles: the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan).
Everything, of course, goes wrong. The last scene in the episode shows Al Roker, playing himself, introducing the 30 Rock fireworks spectacular, followed by images of red, white, and blue explosions and smoke surrounding one of New York’s most famous skyscrapers. The audience at 30 Rock gasp. “Shut it down!” a producer yells.
I’m really interested in how we remember things in this country, and I think explosions have a lot to do with it. They are little bangs of confidence that keep us going. They keep America rah rah and all that. But they are also function like little lobotomies–like those flash pens used in Men In Black to make people forget the aliens they just saw.
That 30 Rock episode first aired in 2007, six years after September 11, 2001, and the crux of the episode’s main joke is that it’s still too soon to do anything that could remind people of 9/11, that people will think an attack is happening and freak out.
That phrase, “too soon,” has been attached to 9/11 since it first happened (remember that first SNL episode that some people called “too soon” or when MTV went on a prolonged hiatus and just played depressing music videos over and over again because it was “too soon” to do anything else?), and it’s a phrase that seems to get attached to pretty much every American tragedy. Holocaust jokes are still “too soon.” It’s now been about 15 years since 9/11, and I think that 30 Rock episode could still air today and get the same point across, because it’s always too soon.
As often as we are told it’s too soon to talk about 9/11 (and our government’s complicity in the attack and the aftermath), or “too soon” to talk about gun control in the wake of a mass shooting, or “too soon” to talk about toxic masculinity and violence against LGBTQ Latinx and black people after Orlando, we are told to “never forget”–implored to always remember the tragedies that define American life.
This is what the United States is really good at: simultaneously telling people attempting to remember something to shut up, and constantly goading us into remembering things we’d rather not. These goals are not necessarily in conflict. They both serve the same purpose. “Never forget” and “too soon” are two ways of saying the same thing, or rather two prongs of one strategy of etching an event in memory in a very specific way, of telling Americans to remember, but never process our tragedies, our traumas, our history. We are only allowed to remember the bang. And so we exist in this traumatized state of limbo.
Because of this, recounting my 9/11 experience always feels over-dramatic. When I tell people I was a few blocks away from the towers, that I ran from the first one to collapse, that I saw people covered in ash and bleeding, eyes often widen, but if I say anything more detailed about the day, about my feelings on patriotism, jingoism, trauma, there’s usually a sense of discomfort, a sense that I’m pushing this state of limbo we like to live in, and so I’ve learned to live in it, constantly remembering, but never really getting over or coming to terms with exactly what happened. In this way I think I’m like a lot of us, but I like to imagine, really fantasize, about what my life would be like if I fully processed things.
One summer, I think 2012, before Bill De Blasio moved the fireworks to the East River, I was invited to watch the 4th of July show on my friend from middle school’s dad’s restaurant/boat/barge thing on the Hudson. We sat there drinking free Corona Lights and watching the explosions, wincing from their brightness, and we were close enough, really right under them, so that we were covered in ash by the end of it.