This week marks the 17th anniversary of the destruction of the World Trade Center twin towers in New York City, as well as the ramming of the Pentagon building in Washington, DC, and a foiled attempt to fly a fourth plane fully loaded with passengers into the White House. The results were unprecedented destruction, live-action horror for two billion viewers on television, and nationwide trauma in the USA. The attacks on the morning of September 11, 2001 shook US national self-confidence but the immediate reaction was an immense outpouring of humanitarian responses, heroic actions, and compassionate solidarity.
9/11 (which ironically is also the emergency hotline phone number throughout the USA) is remembered by everyone who lived through it. Still, the motto “Never Forget” has evolved as the slogan for the day. The imperative to “never forget” raises the question, “Why would anyone think we would need to be reminded?” The slogan evokes poignancy and demands response. Forgetfulness is shameful and unpatriotic.
Recently, however, the question has arisen, “Never forget what?” Exactly what are we being challenged to remember? Where we were when we saw the planes strike the towers on TV? How erratic the national leaders were at the beginning of the crisis? How horrible it was for victims trapped in the planes or the buildings? How heroic the first responders were? How dastardly the terrorist perpetrators were? The names of those killed? The involvement of Muslims? How all national divisions were forgotten in our moments of response? How helpless and vulnerable we felt? How our rage was aroused? All of the above?
For the first ten to fifteen years we were expected to pick some of those memories and to hold them fresh before us every September 11.
Now we have a new generation of young adults whose memories do not extend back to 2001. What are they being exhorted to “never forget”? This is not an entirely philosophic question because we are all being groomed to remember a time of collective trauma and response in a certain way. There is, I submit, a great deal more uniformity in our remembrance of the shock and horror that developed into collective trauma than there is to our responses. That is, the responses to 9/11 include some that we have polished and cherish and others that elicit doubt or shame. Our responses were diverse, including the campaign to get Osama bin Laden at any cost and wipe out the forces he recruited wherever they were hiding, and also campaigns to build a fitting memorial for those who died and to provide scholarships for their children.
As we welcome the first post-9/11 generation into the conversation as peers we will need to clarify what we are to never forget. As a student of philosophy who grew up on Wittgenstein, I would like to point out that collective memory evolves and shifts. Icons are shifty and their manipulators are too.
Consider the monuments we erect to preserve memory of collective trauma. The fall of the Roman Empire is memorialized in the ruins of the Roman Forum. The devastation of the Second World War is recalled in the skeletal dome at ground zero in Hiroshima. The Holocaust is poignant at the Auschwitz site. The US Civil War is symbolized by the Gettysburg graves and battlefield. Those memorialize horrendous loss which came to an end. Italy moved into a Renaissance nearly as glittering as Imperial Rome. Japan survived. Jews overcame. The Union re-unified. So it is safe as well as salutary to ponder the ruins. The ruins say, “We are not defined by that past.”
In an ironic way, that is what the glowing hole at the site of the twin towers is supposed to do. It is trying to push our memories forward as well as force us to meditate on what was destroyed … lives (people with names) and spectacular property, the tallest and largest buildings in the world, the very symbols of American economic and military might. The terrorists thought attacks on these would symbolize the fragility of this form of American empire and humiliate us. But, behold, we survived that trauma. The threats against us were once again eradicated. We are essentially invincible.
If that is what we are to never forget, we are going to have trouble keeping the conversation going when these new college age young adults have their 20 year-olds ask, “What are we supposed to never forget?” The fiftieth anniversary of 9/11 in 2051 will need a new lesson rather than American exceptionalism and invincibility. That sort of mega-narrative is unsustainable and it is unworthy.
Up to now it has worked to just chant, “Never forget.” When everybody who is chanting has a vivid personal memory of that day it would never work to fill in the blank for them. We would retort, “Don’t tell me what to remember, I saw it happen.” The day is coming, however, when circumstances will no longer revolve around today’s targets of terror and pride. People of that day will “never forget” 9/11 at the same emotional distance as we “remember the Alamo.” It fits our narrative to remember the Alamo as heroic resistance to tyranny and eventual victory over huge adversity as a step in nation building. Davy Crockett’s agenda in the Alamo was more personal and existential.
A new national narrative about 9/11 is coming, never doubt, and it will fill in the “never forget” frame with content we have not yet contemplated.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.