Thursday, September 11, 2008

choosing to remember

Today is September 11th, 2008. It has been seven full years since the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, the attacks on our country, and each year this day on the calendar has slowly taken on the trappings of a normal date. Movies open on September 11th. CDs and DVDs come out. People throw parties, and plan meetings and go out to dinner. It's no longer a day where things come to a grinding halt and where normal ceases to exist, the kind of day it was in 2001. We've kept going, we've learned to be okay again.
But no matter how many years pass, September 11th will never just be another day. How could it? How could anyone who lived through those events not feel something on this day? Yet sometimes I worry that the realities of that awful day will fade. I worry that as a nation, we'll choose to forget, let the old wounds heal and the old horrors fade away. It would be self preservation after all, such a basic human instinct, to turn ourselves away from all of those terrible images and memories, to let go of all of those things we should never have had to witness in the first place; a plane going at a full speed into a skyscraper, an enormous cloud of falling debris engulfing buildings and cars and people, a hole in the Pentagon, a crater in a rural field in Pennsyvlania. We should never have had to open a newspaper and see those blurry, wrenching images of indistinguishable people leaning out the windows of the rapidly burning towers, or the even more incomprehensible images of those same people falling to the ground. All of those things were too terrible to hold on to. And that's why I worry that maybe, eventually, we simply won't. But then I remember the simple reason that we will never forget; we'll remember not because we want to, but because we have to, because it's our obligation as Americans yes, but more than that's it's our obligation as human beings. It's one of our most unreasonable traits. Rational animals would purge themselves of painful memories, avoid any and all contact with anything that could bring back that pain. But we humans are stubborn in our completely irrational need to witness those unspeakable, painful moments in our lives and in the lives of our fellow humans. We witness.
On September 11th, I would imagine there wasn't a household in this nation without the television on. They kept showing the same awful things, telling the same awful stories, but we watched because we had to. And in the days after September 11th, we kept watching and reading and listening. We came together in this sad, beauitful way-an entire country of wounded and angry people, bonded forever by the simple fact that we had lived through these days. And in the days and weeks that followed we continued to witness this moment in our history. I remember the first anniversary of September 11th, how memorials and memories were everywhere-dominating the news and people's conversations. No one could believe it had been a year. This moment in our history still loomed too large and too indelible to feel in any way in the past.
But another year came, and then one after that, and while mentions of 9/11 continued, first in news stories and reports, then in books and movies, it became somehow smaller-farther away. The sight of NYC without the towers, so searingly new at first, became more and more familar. And today, while the attacks and the legacy of the attacks are covered in the news, I think it's fairly easy to spend this entire day without hearing or seeing anything about the tragedy. And in that way, it's at least possible, to not remember, or at least to remember only in a distant, vague kind of way. But I believe that distant and vague are no ways to remember 9/11. This happened in our lifetime. Whether or not we like it, 9/11 has defined and will continue to define many of our nation's actions and choices, not to mention it's overall character. It's our obligation to remember what it was really like on that day, how awful and confusing and terrifying it was. But it has become harder, and so a few years back I made a somewhat unconscious choice. Every year for the last few years, around this time, I force myself to read something or watch something that I normally would avoid. Most of the year I would see a movie or a documentary about the attacks on the television and I would hastily flip past it. Because most of the time, I want to avoid bringing back all of those terrible memories. Inevitably if I do watch one of these things or read a lengthy article about the attacks, I end up reduced to a mess of tears. It's been seven years, but at least for me it doesn't take very much for all of the memories of that day and the days that followed to come flooding up to the surface. In one second, I'm fifteen years old again, sitting on the floor of a highschool classroom, watching the teacher's terrified faces around me as the TV at the front of the room shows the towers falling. So most of the year I keep those memories at a polite distance, but around this time, I force myself to come face to face with them again. A couple of years ago I watched a documentary about the efforts to recover personal items from the wreckage of the towers-how a mangled credit card or a pair of handcuffs became sacred to these families because those meager items were all they ever got of the ones they loved. I cried for the entire thing, but I didn't change the channel.
It's painful and unpleasant, but it's necessary. I think it's important that as a nation we do this. We shouldn't wallow in this tragedy or refuse to move on, but I also think we have to realize that moving on doesn't mean healing. 9/11 was too massive, too awful, too close for its wound to ever completely heal. But I do think that if we let ourselves, we can risk forgetting about the old wound entirely.
So this year don't let yourself forget. It's impractical and messy, but that's how we humans are. When you're flipping through channels pause on a documentary about the attacks or a special news report. It's going to hurt and bring all of that stuff back, but it's important. It's important that we remember for all of the people who aren't here to remember. It's important that we share even a tiny fraction of the burden of the grief with the families of those who were lost. It's important that we remind ourselves of how angry and shocked we were, and how often that anger and shock have been manipulated and used in the last seven years for political purposes. It's important that on this day of all days, we take a moment to cry, because while our capacity for endurance is amazing, what's even more amazing is our capacity for compassion. Compassion is what drove firefighters and police men and medical workers to go into two burnings towers without any thought to their own safety. It's what drove perfect strangers to go with a bucket and their hands to a pile of smoking rubble for days and weeks, or to give blood or to donate money, driven only by the simple desire to help. Compassion is what drives memory. It's what forces us to make the choice every day to remember something terrible, with no benefit to ourselves. So today make that choice. And if you need some help, watch the clip at the top. It's from the first Daily Show after the attacks, and it's only going to take about 30 seconds of this clip for you to remember what it was like back then, how raw and shocked we were, and how determined we were, even back then, to move on without ever forgetting.

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