If, as Cicero wrote, “Memory is the treasury and guardian of all things,” then it is safe to say that the farther away our world moves from 9/11, the more our memories of that day should enrich us and keep us from taking actions that will make another equally devastating terrorist attack more likely.
Alas, the old Roman republican never knew a country like America. If he had, he would almost certainly have found an exception to his logic. For us, the past has always been an annoyance that gets in the way of our determined and dedicated march to the future. There is no malice in it, this flight, this mad dash from our history. In some ways, it is necessary for us to forget or ignore what has transpired in order to be free of the consequences the past sometimes imposes on those who would use our collective memory to keep the future at bay, standing in the way of progress in the name of hidebound “tradition” or “custom.”
So it has come for 9/11, a date but 6 years in the past and already seeing the effects of what James Earl Jones in the film Field of Dreams referred to as the erasure of history:
And they’ll walk out to the bleachers; sit in shirtsleeves on a perfect afternoon. They’ll find they have reserved seats somewhere along one of the baselines, where they sat when they were children and cheered their heroes. And they’ll watch the game and it’ll be as if they dipped themselves in magic waters. The memories will be so thick they’ll have to brush them away from their faces. People will come Ray. The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game: it’s a part of our past, Ray. It reminds of us of all that once was good and it could be again.
Jones’ character was talking about baseball as a cultural touchstone by which each succeeding generation maintains contact with the past. But even here, that paean to baseball neglects the very real history of the game. Jones himself grew up during a time when members of his race were barred from playing the game. To say that baseball “reminds of us of all that once was good” ignores the fact that even a cursory glance at the historical record would flip those words and posit that baseball, in fact, also reminds us of all that once was bad about America.
It is this kind of schizophrenia – a duality of mind regarding our past – that so angers and fascinates many of us who love American history. We can glory in the words of the Declaration of Independence while realizing the hypocrisy of demanding freedom as we kept three million human beings in bondage ourselves. Similarly, we can marvel at the elegance and simplicity of the Constitution while acknowledging that its words still ring hollow for so many and have for so long.
Although aware of the dichotomies, the Founders gave these little discrepancies scant thought, believing it would be up to future generations to right the wrongs that they had neither the political or moral will to fix themselves. Right or wrong, much of American history is carelessly strewn about our national attic like a bunch of old steamer trunks and hope chests, examined (if at all) not for what the curios inside can teach us about ourselves but rather how their contents can be used in the present to propel us into the future.
And now this battle between the past and future has come for 9/11 as the open wounds of that day scab over and the emotional impact of the event becomes hard for even the vividness of searing memories to arouse in our breasts the same feelings of anger, outrage, and the terrible, aching sadness felt by virtually all Americans. For many of us, what remains is a determination not to forget and a realization that “The Long War” is upon us. For others, remembering 9/11 is an unwelcome intrusion or worse, a political construct to try and revivify feelings of patriotism and the war spirit. To these citizens who cling to the latter – most of whom could fairly be said are on the left – identification of 9/11 with their rabid opposition to the Administration of George Bush and the Iraq War builds an unreasonable resentment about remembering the attacks at all.
This excellent article in the New York Times by N.R. Kleinfield about the battle over how to best remember the history of 9/11 reveals both the pathos and the agony memories of that day engender as well as the desire by many to try and simply wish those memories away:
Each year, murmuring about Sept. 11 fatigue arises, a weariness of reliving a day that everyone wishes had never happened. It began before the first anniversary of the terrorist attack. By now, though, many people feel that the collective commemorations, publicly staged, are excessive and vacant, even annoying.
â€œI may sound callous, but doesnâ€™t grieving have a shelf life?â€ said Charlene Correia, 57, a nursing supervisor from Acushnet, Mass. â€œWeâ€™re very sorry and mournful that people died, but there are living people. Letâ€™s wind it down.â€
Some people prefer to see things condensed to perhaps a moment of silence that morning and an end to the rituals like the long recitation of the names of the dead at ground zero.
But many others bristle at such talk, especially those who lost relatives on that day.
â€œThe idea of scaling back just seems so offensive to me when you think of the monumental nature of that tragedy,â€ said Anita LaFond Korsonsky, whose sister Jeanette LaFond-Menichino died in the World Trade Center. â€œIf youâ€™re tired of it, donâ€™t attend it; turn off your TV or leave town. To say six years is enough, itâ€™s not. I donâ€™t know what is enough.â€
It isn’t just family members who wish to commemorate 9/11 as solemnly and fully as possible. However, the “moral authority” of those who lost loved ones that tragic day should be respected. They are stand ins for the rest of us who still see 9/11 as a day that changed America in ways that a mere 6 years after the event we are still trying to understand.
Superficially, there is the debate over increased domestic security. Even the wars currently being fought by our military in Iraq and Afghanistan are only surface manifestations of something fundamental that is altering our political and cultural landscape as I write this. In this respect, it doesn’t matter if Hillary Clinton or other Democrats want to take us back to a 9/10 world where the threat of terrorists and those who support and enable them occupies a much smaller space in our national politics.
Whether or not they realize it, the 9/10 Democrats can try all they wish to make 9/11 disappear into the mists of memory by downplaying its significance so that rather than a rallying cry it becomes a day marked by an inexpressible sadness with overtones of guilt that the attacks were actually our fault. They will not succeed because our enemies will not let them.
Sooner or later, our perfect record of preventing another terrorist attack on American soil will bump up against the reality that we can succeed a thousand times in thwarting the designs of those who contemplate mass murder but our enemies need to win only once. And then those memories that we have carefully stored in our national attic will come back in a rush and we will wonder if we shouldn’t have dusted them off every once and a while in order to glean whatever lessons in preparedness we might have missed the first time around.
To be sure, it is human nature to try and push unpleasant memories to the back of our minds lest the pain they cause become a part of our everyday lives. And we shouldn’t blame those who wish that 9/11 be relegated so soon to the status that other days of national tragedy have fallen:
Few Americans give much thought anymore on Dec. 7 that Pearl Harbor was attacked in 1941 (the date to live in infamy). Similar subdued attention is paid to other scarring tragedies: the Kennedy assassination (Nov. 22, 1963), Kent State (May 4, 1970), the Oklahoma City bombing (April 19, 1995).
Generations, of course, turn over. Few are alive anymore who can recall June 15, 1904, when 1,021 people died in the burning of the steamer General Slocum, the deadliest New York City disaster until Sept. 11, 2001. Also, the weight of new wrenching events crowds the national memory. Already since Sept. 11, there have been Katrina and Virginia Tech. And people have their own more circumscribed agonies.
A strong argument could be made that none of those other days of tragedy had the raw, emotional impact of 9/11. Perhaps the Kennedy Assassination echoes the surprise of what happened on 9/11. And Pearl Harbor certainly aroused similar feelings of anger and determination.
But 9/11 stands alone as a date that tears at our souls and requires us to re-examine uncomfortable truths. We are at war. Remembering or not remembering 9/11 won’t change that fact nor will denying the reality of that statement make it less true. The reason is simple. It takes two sides to make war. And our enemies will find ways to remind us that our denial is silly, stupid, and self defeating as often and as painfully as we let them.
It may be a different kind of war but war it is and pushing the proximate cause of the conflict into the recesses of our memory because remembering is too painful, or too much a bother, or gives political advantage to one side or another is simply putting off the day of reckoning when those in denial will be forced once again to look 9/11 full in the face and realize the overwhelming truth that America is in danger. And if we are vouchsafed the time to allow the emotional scars of 9/11 to heal, we should also use that time to prepare for the next onslaught while doing everything in our power to prevent it.
Once again, America is steamrolling our history into a flattened state of forgetfulness. This time, it is happening in record time and partly being done so that any political advantage in remembering 9/11 can be neutralized by an opposition that plays upon the emotional weariness of the voters in fighting a war few understand and many wish would just go away. Part of this problem can be laid at the feet of the current Administration who has, at times (not as often as they have been accused), employed the imagery and played upon the emotions that 9/11 brought to the surface; feelings of patriotism and unity that seem somewhat quaint when we look back on them today. Not because they were not genuine but because the opposition has determined that these emotions are inappropriate and not germane to the political realities of today.
Instead, the dominant emotion we should be feeling about 9/11 is outrage. Not at Osama Bin Laden but at George Bush for using 9/11 as an “excuse” to get us embroiled in the morass that is Iraq and to skirt the limits of Constitutional authority in order to protect the homeland from further attacks. This is what the Democrats will run their campaigns on in 2008. It remains to be seen whether they will be successful or not.
Meanwhile, the 6th anniversary of 9/11 approaches and once again we will try and conjure up what it felt like to be alive and an American that day. Whether the exercise in remembrance is useful or not is immaterial to those who lost loved ones on that horrible day. For them, the war to remember 9/11 is irrelevant to their bereavement. They are beyond comforting and need only our understanding. I would hope that both sides in this battle for the degree of poignancy with which we recall September 11, 2001 keeps them in their thoughts and prayers as the history of that day fades into myth and legend, becoming a touchstone for all we hold dear as Americans.