When something terrible, something truly unforgivable occurs, we often look to the language for comfort. One readymade expression that is used to comfort us in times of genuine despair and confusion is “Never Forget”. This expression has become a part of our post-9/11 mourning process. The idea behind it is that if we don’t forget the horrors of that terrible day it will have some meaning for us. Then, maybe we can use those feelings of pain and grief in order to achieve some balance in the world. We can right the wrongs of that day, on some level, through an act of national collective memory.
As comforting as that idea may be, I wonder if it really has achieved what we’ve wanted from it. It has been 10 years since that day and few have forgotten. The test of an idea is its manifestation in the world we live in. Has clinging to the memory of 9/11 made the world a better place? Have we used our memories to heal the wounds of that day? Some would believe that we have. I do not. I look out into a world where we are mired in two of the longest wars in U.S. history, into a world consumed by turmoil, into a world where chaos and strife are commonplace, into a world where we have seemingly lost all faith in the systems that have been created to help us, into a world where the center surely has not held. We have remembered, but our memory has served us poorly.
Al-Queda has been weakened significantly. If that was the goal of not forgetting, then we can argue it has been effective. But, was that all we wanted? Was disrupting the actions of a small, but vicious terrorist group all we were hoping for after that terrible day? I believe that America saw the terror of that day and wanted desperately to be part of a world where that sort of thing could not happen again, not just here, but anywhere. For a brief and fleeting moment, we stood together. Ten years later, we are a deeply polarized nation, extended far beyond our means, spiraling from one catastrophe to the next without much hope for a better world. Ten years later, we may be safer from Al-Qaeda, but as a whole, our world is an unmitigated disaster.
There is no clear consensus on what 9/11 actually meant. Some people believe that its meaning is that we need to use all means at our disposal to crush anything that resembles a threat, some people have taken the message that we should curb our military adventurism, some people have taken the message that all Muslims are evil, some have taken the message that the world should come together in spite of religious and racial differences. It is even become relatively acceptable to question whether the U.S. government itself was complicit in the horrors of that day. We all remember, but our memories have led us to a very different place.
I’m going to suggest a radically different approach to how to cope with the anniversary of 9/11. It will probably be viewed in some circles as highly disrespectful, but I assure you that no disrespect is intended. I believe that the central lesson of 9/11 is that terrible things happen to innocent people for no reason whatsoever. It is an unjust world where some things can never be explained or properly understood. Life is filled with random and capricious acts of horror that take place everyday. Our responsibility is to lessen the suffering of the living, not to compensate for the horrors inflicted upon the dead. We have remembered, but we have not healed, we have not grown and we have not made a better world for our children. For those who lost loved ones, it will be impossible to forget that day, but for the rest of us it is time to move on. We cannot create a better world from our past, but we have a greater obligation to create a better future from the world around us today.
We have lived in the looming shadows of those buildings for ten years. Maybe it is time to forget. Not from a place of ignorance or disinterest, but from a need to build a healthier, safer world. Instead of remembering the violence of the past, we can renounce the use of violence in the present. Instead of thinking of the paradise that was lost to us, we can build a new, more beautiful world out of the tools of compassion and empathy. The past is over and that day can never be changed. The present and the future extend before us filled with promise and possibility. We have cried, we have mourned, we have prayed, and we have paid our debts to the dead. It is time to move on.