Like many Americans, and indeed many people worldwide, when I reflect on the events of 9/11 my thoughts ache for a return to those seemingly innocent moments just before I heard what was taking place. This is, I think, what we mean when we talk of “Where were you when . . . ?” The jolt of a trauma, after all, only makes sense, if it ever does, when it is held in contrast to that imagined period that preceded it. Of course, the tragedy of trauma, the terror even, is that there is no safe journey going back. Upon our return, we are apt to find every “before” bruised by an antagonistic “after.” Time, so we’re told, stops for no one.
There is, for me, nothing sadder than a memorial without remembrance. Headstones overtaken by weeds, known perhaps only to lovers looking for privacy or landscapers for a dollar; mausoleums rusted red by chains, disdaining the presence of all mourners, false & real. Memorials also become monuments to civic pride, a material reminder, though surely it is a construction, of those “better angels of our nature.” Oh, but how many angels can dance on the head of the Washington Monument?
If modern history can be said to have a defining theme it was surely anticipated by Elie Wiesel in his recitation of the horrors of the Holocaust: “Never shall I forget . . .” Wiesel’s vow wound its way from the death camps of Europe to the blasted remains of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan to various war memorials in the United States and beyond, and it continues today to inspire communities and peoples who have been broken by incomprehensible modes of violence. Over time and with the accumulation of various video and internet technologies, the vow has been somewhat flattened to describe a kind of inevitability: “Never can I forget . . .” These days, to forget at all is to be accused of either living in denial or a cave. The horrors of history are but a Google-search away and those of today don’t even require that. With 9/11 in particular, though, that which has been flattened in general has become dangerously sharpened by its specificity: “Never forget.” What was once a vow has become nearly indistinguishable from a threat. This is illustrated with startling clarity in the old war film Bombardier (1943), where an American military leader rallies his attacking airmen around the subtext of Franklin Roosevelt’s Day of Infamy speech: “Gentlemen, there’s a date we will always remember—and they’ll never forget!” One needn’t be a pacifist for this kind of “weaponized memory” to give us pause.
Memory, whether it be that which is inevitable or that which is forced upon us, seems largely a welcome violation of the present. It accosts the senses, often as a distraction, through snippets of conversation; or as diversion, by way of the presentations of media; or merely in the dissonance between the stuff of our everyday life and the semi-random associations one makes with it that is between only you & you unconscious mind. It is not a “natural” thing necessarily, as we know memory is itself a complex construction, but neither is it borne wholly of our will & intention.
And I will concede, that, yes, it could be that we are best-made only for memory. It is not inconceivable that remembrance, of the sort Wiesel described, is largely a thing of the past. Or, moreover, that the material horrors for we in the West are simply not so large and thus not worth remembering. Are we capable or worthy of it anymore? I would like to think we are. For unlike the memories forced upon us by the expectations of never-forgetting or more benignly trained into us by their ubiquity, remembrance seems more properly a vow to return to that which one (and one’s respective world) would likely wish to forget if it could. If it speaks of “Never forgetting,” it does so only with resignation and anguish that this must be the case.
Indeed, if there is an impropriety to today’s various commemorations, it is that they have seemingly been framed more as celebrations. There is a solemnity to it all, of course, but an eager solemnity whose tears are reserved for things that cannot ultimately be changed. The kind of solemnity that attaches itself to most retrospective accounts of history, but is largely unwelcome (if not unknown) to a remembrance that is as invested in the creation of the future as it is the re-creation of the past.