Friday, September 9, 2016

Remembering The Real 9/11

As someone who was just beginning to study historical memory, I wondered in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 of how that event would register in years to come. I never could have imagined that fifteen years later its main cultural manifestations are in "God Bless America" being sung in seventh inning at Yankees games, and whacko internet conspiracy theories. These days my biggest reminder of 9/11 comes when someone makes a "jet fuel can't melt steel beams" joke on twitter. It has been reduced to a symbol by nationalists and has lost its emotional heft due to conspiracy theories.

I have tried, every year since the event, to think long and hard about what I really felt on 9/11. Our nation soon crafted a narrative of resilience, and even Hillary Clinton recently cited the purported unity in the nation the attacks brought on that day. The deluge of official remembrance and media spin has made us lose sight of the visceral human horror of that day. Like others, I was confused and disoriented, overcome by a sickening wave of grief and fear. Nobody was sure of what had happened, or what it would mean. I remember crying quiet tears in the teaching assistants' office, thinking that the attack would unleash even bloodier wars in response. 

I never could have known that the wars would still be going on fifteen years later. Those wars have helped turn 9/11 into a symbol, and have obscured its tragedy. Real people died, real flesh and blood people, and they died by the thousands. For the most part, they weren't "heroes," just ordinary people going about their day. In fact, I just found out today that a colleague lost someone he knew in the attack. My wife has had students at her school who lost family members in the attack. The wounds are still there, even if lower Manhattan has shaken almost all of the scars. I wonder how soon before the last traces of anything real in our memory are gone, replaced completely and totally by bullshit.

So this 9/11, don't let the day be claimed by the nationalists and the cranks. Remember by remembering the people who lost their lives, and don't invest them with phony martyrdom. Don't act as if taking out Bin Laden vindicates anything or lessens the mourning of those who lost loved ones. Above all, remember what you really, really felt that day, before the mechanisms of nationalism turned it into justification for wars without end. Maybe, when the current, unending war 9/11 was exploited to foment finally ends, we can have a true, honest public memory of that day.


Andrew L. said...

I'm struck over the last couple weeks by the realization that we also lost the concept of a liberal state. I was discussing Colin Kaepernick's protest with my high school students the other day and realized that they only saw patriotic ritual in light of the military and support for it. Obviously that aspect has always been there, but I don't remember it's primacy before 9/11. Now the Orwellian feel is inescapable.

Terry said...

I agree with all of this. And more: I grieve the loss of international support and goodwill that Bush & Co not only squandered, but shat on in their rush to exploit the tragedy for monetary gain.