I hadn’t planned on writing anything about September 11, 2001 today. But I’ve been seeing a lot of images and memories from that day in my various social network feeds today. Many of them say: “Never forget.”
What has been poking at me is what does “never forget” mean exactly? What is it that we’re being asked remember? The events themselves? That it happened? It has to be more than that.
We don’t live in a time anymore when we need people to memorize stories about events to report them as oral history to future generations. We have writing, books, video recordings for that. What we are supposed to remember must be something deeper.
Remember the people whose lives were lost? Perhaps, that makes sense. I am sure their families and friends will pause for a moment today and try to bring them back to mind. Someone will think about her husband’s quirks, the way he liked peanut butter and mayonnaise sandwiches, the way he smiled, just a little crooked on the left side. She might remember the hours before, the normal morning when he went off to work as usual, never to return, and think about a future lost.
Contemplating this makes me mourn out of pure human empathy. Yet I didn’t personally know anyone who was killed that day. The only thing I know about them is how they died. I remember reading the New York Times obituaries every Sunday. Pages of them. These were not lives lost to me, but lives introduced to me. I couldn’t remember who they were in life even if I tried.
Why is it important that I remember?
Maybe it is because remembering makes us a people. We are the people who remember. We, the people.
“Remember, remember the Fifth of November”
Eventually our generation will pass away and the next will “remember” September 11 they way the British “remember” the fifth of November or we “remember the Alamo.”
“Remember” will have changed its meaning. It will mean to observe, not to recall. Asking Americans to remember today is a not only a personal call but a request to hold this date as an observance. To pass this kind of “memory” on to future generations as a historical event that defines them as “a people.”
“Why is this night different from all other nights?” asks a child at the Passover Seder.
A good question– why? Why talk about something that happened thousands of years ago? What does what happened in ancient Egypt have to do with me or my life today?
It doesn’t have a lot to do with you and your life, but it has everything to do with us and our life. (In this case, the Jewish people.) We, the people.
There are moments in history that collectively define those who experienced them. They are so big that they force us to put our own interests aside and to focus on the community as a whole. They make us aware that we are part of something greater, that we have responsibilities to one another, and that we can lean on one another when we need to.
Do you remember, in those days after the event, walking down the street and holding people’s gaze? Do you remember talking with the custodian, the cab driver, your boss, feeling like nothing divided you, that those markers of status were obsolete, everyone was on the same page? Being a people eclipsed all of those normal concerns.
I remember a tearful Jon Stewart returning to the airwaves and putting this feeling into words: “The reason I don’t despair is that. . . this attack happened. It’s not a dream. But the aftermath of it, the recovery, is a dream realized. And that is Martin Luther King’s dream. Whatever barriers we put up are gone. Even if it’s just momentary. We are judging people by not the color of their skin, but the content of their character…. The view from my apartment was the World Trade Center. . .Now it’s gone. They attacked it. This symbol of. . . of American ingenuity and strength. . . and labor and imagination and commerce and it’s gone. But you know what the view is now? The Statue of Liberty. . . the view from the south of Manhattan is the Statue of Liberty. You can’t beat that.”
It didn’t last long. We we went back to our striving and status worries and busyness. That’s the nature life. It is hard to sustain the sense of being “a people,” but when historical events shock us out of our isolation, our categories, our partisanship, the least we can do is pause on anniversaries to remember.
What should we remember? Remember the details, the horror, “Where were you when?…” “Never forget” could mean any of these things.
This is what I think it means:
Remember that we are a people when we need to be. We have it in us to be a people not only when we respond to tragedy, but when we dream about a better future. Our strength is not in our victory or power. It is how we lean on one another.
Of course, no sooner had I finished writing this stream of thought than I checked my social network feed and the first news item to appear was:
“Fox News remembers 9/11 by attacking President Obama for not mentioning God in his presidential proclamation.”