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.
#1 by John Erickson on September 11, 2011 - 9:03 AM
Too often, people fail to understand what remembrance means. They hold on to EVERYTHING, not only the sorrow and the love and the sense of shared tragedy, but also the hurt and the pain and the fury. Remembrance IS necessary, to avoid repeating the mistakes of history. Memorials are necessary, to avoid paving over the memories and losing our history. Revisiting the people, alive and dead, who were touched b y all this is necessary.
But would the people who went to work and didn’t come home, want us to remember them through our divisive politics?
Would the brave 343 firefighters, who ran into the Towers while all others fled, want us to remember them with increasingly violent race hatred?
We have moved on, in New York with the Freedom Tower, in Washington with the rebuilt Pentagon, in Pennsylvania with a field of flags.
We need to move on past the jingoistic, classist, racist expressions that dog us today.
We owe those, who died 10 years ago today, nothing less.
#2 by Keith Spillett on September 11, 2011 - 12:27 PM
I’m not sure how to move past this, but I really believe we must. Sometimes memories become to heavy to carry and threaten to collapse us beneath their weight.
#3 by Jim Wheeler on September 11, 2011 - 10:19 AM
I endorse John Erickson’s sentiments above, but am not sanguine that unity can be recovered except by subsequent traumatic events. History shows that the prime mover for unity and economic efficiency has always been war – that is, war in the classic sense. Here in the nuclear era, that classic kind of war is dead and what has replaced it is a pandemic of, well, terror – not a terror of the moment but an abiding public sense of vulnerability that enables unwise spending and poor planning by government. To see what I mean, check out the new book, Top Secret America by Priest and Arkin. (I am about 1/3 through it.)
As for Keith’s wise post above, I think he nailed it when he said,
9/11 expanded the public consciousness, but not in a constructive way. In my opinion the entire nation and its leaders have over-reacted to it. Pearl Harbor presaged a classic war with a bloc of inimical nations. 9/11 represented something quite different – harmful intent and a lucky (for them) attack by a small number of people inspired by religious hatred. That is more like a low-grade infection that doesn’t go away, but our reaction was all out of proportion to the threat. The terrorists have succeeded in terrorizing us. I wish we could move on as Keith does, but I don’t see that happening.
#4 by Keith Spillett on September 11, 2011 - 12:26 PM
So much sadness around this, Jim. We have been scared outside of ourselves. I wish I knew what led to unity, because we can use it right now, in spades.
#5 by Dave on September 11, 2011 - 10:54 AM
The people who were in New York that day will never forget. Nor should they.
#6 by Keith Spillett on September 11, 2011 - 12:22 PM
Maybe if I was there I’d feel differently, I will grant you that, but we have all suffered on some level. No one, no matter what they have lived through or seen, has a monopoly on the existential conditions and sufferings of life. If I were to apply the “never forget” mantra to specific sufferings in my own life I’m not sure I could be able to be a functioning human in a world that requires patience and understanding. Remembering has not served us well.
#7 by sekanblogger on September 11, 2011 - 11:09 AM
I absolutely cringe when I hear people say “Everything happens for a reason.”…..BULLSHIT. And I completely understand your point. Well said.
In 2006, I visited “the site” with our high school’s “show choir”.
It was sobering.
After visiting the site, we stopped at the little church there, the oldest public building on Manhattan island. It’s the church where George Washington was inaugurated, I believe.
The place was packed with tourists, and our choir got up front and sang The National Anthem (all verses)….not a dry eye in the place.
Many tourists sobbing openly and hugging children.
Something I’ll never forget.
It was St. Paul’s Church, link here:
I really can’t watch the stuff today. Sitting here in the hospital with Dad, and he certainly doesn’t seem strong enough to survive this time. If I watch the memorial stuff I’ll bawl like a baby. Even though Dad is incoherent most of the time, I don’t want him coming-to and seeing me sobbing like a damn fool.
I am ready to forget and move on.
Let’s do the next right thing and fix our own fractured society. ‘Nuff said.
#8 by Keith Spillett on September 11, 2011 - 12:23 PM
I’m so sorry to hear that. The article was beautiful. You’ll be in my thoughts.
#9 by afrankangle on September 11, 2011 - 11:31 AM
Great post. I most appreciated this line: “We all remember, but our memories have led us to a very different place.”
None of us are going to forget because we live with the effects everyday … and more on some days than others. Nonetheless, your point is well taken. After all, we are the ones who have a chance to use the experiences of today and yesterday to move on to a better tomorrow. Well … if we decide too.
#10 by Keith Spillett on September 11, 2011 - 12:23 PM
I hope we do
#11 by ellie spillett on September 11, 2011 - 2:41 PM
Keith, I gave this to your dad to read. We both agree it is so thoughtful, well written, and from the heart. I think that it might be the very best piece you have ever written. We’re proud of you and your creative pen. Keep it up! However, it was a day that most of us who lived through it will always find hard to forget. I guess like any such evil act, we hope that by remembering, we can be reminded of our responsibility to see that good, thoughtful young people like you can have that power to bring about a better world. Thank you for giving me something to think about – – – Go to my facebook page and read the “red bandana.” Love, Ellie
#12 by Keith Spillett on September 11, 2011 - 2:50 PM
Thanks so much! That means a great deal to me.
Love you very much!
#13 by Shell Bush on September 13, 2011 - 12:35 AM
I can’t forget because I was there. I was a manager in the Borders Books in Building 5. I watched as people chose to fall to a quick though brutal death rather than burn in the flames. I ran as the South Tower began its collapse. I want to move on but the images and the experience are part of me now and I will carry it to my grave. All I can hope for is that my two little girls (one of whom would not even exist if I had not escaped) never have to endure what I did. I lost quite a bit that day, but I have gained a lot of new things since (such as my girls).
But I can’t get the memories out of my head. I can’t watch the 9/11 programs they show each year as all they do is take me back to that day and this year was the worst for me. I have not felt fully at ease once in the past ten years.
#14 by Keith Spillett on September 13, 2011 - 3:07 AM
I am so sorry to hear that you had to endure such an awful experience. I hope with all my heart that you can find some peace. You will be in my thoughts.
#15 by John Erickson on September 13, 2011 - 1:00 PM
Shell- I don’t say this lightly, nor do I mean any insult. Have you thought about PTSD counseling? I can hook you up with some sources of help, and I can recommend checking in at http://www.padresteve.wordpress.com. He is a Navy Chaplain who went through PTSD himself.
Even if you don’t feel like you’ve gone through a Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder event, I would urge you to talk it out with someone you trust. It will help a great deal, believe me – I spent 4 years sitting on my butt, following a health crash that cost me my job and house, and ended up with me living in rural Ohio, despite being a born-and-raised Chicagoan.
Whatever you choose, I wish you all the best, and if you ever want to vent to someone, I’m at home 24/7 due to my health, so you can contact me via this blog.