Sunday, September 11, 2011

Forgetting September 11

cross-posted from Dagblog

It's strange to be cajoled, everywhere you turn, to "remember" September 11. It's not like we've forgotten it. Who needs a reminder of this? It's like being told "Remember gravity!"or "Remember oxygen!" I am reminded every day, thanks. It's all around us.

I used to think very specifically about the September 11th attacks at least twice a day, for the simple reason that I owned a clock. Every day, morning and evening, one digital display or another would flash that 9:11 at me and I would notice. I would also be reminded when working out at the gym, nine minutes and eleven seconds after I had started on each particular machine; since I often used two or three on indoor-cardio days, I could count on my heart rate spiking two or three times every session. On September 11, 2006, I think I did exactly nine minutes and eleven seconds, as fast and as hard as I could, on five machines. I didn't need a reminder about the fifth anniversary, either.

Sometimes, these days, I look at my watch and it's nine thirteen, or nine seventeen. When I'm doing penance on the exercise bike I no longer tend to notice when the 551st second of the workout goes past. And I no longer look at all the big flat-screens at the gym with that dreadful apprehension I used to feel, thinking of what a horrible place that room would be the next time we were attacked, how it would be to have all those TVs playing the next September 11th footage at once. These days I can go two weeks, sometimes three, without experiencing a visual memory of people falling to their deaths. Is that forgetting September 11? Hell no. I'll remember the attacks until I'm put in the ground myself. There's no forgetting. It's too late.

It's true that I now remember September 11th differently than I did two or five years after the attacks. It no longer feels as if I am reliving the experience of the original day. I no longer feel the full emotion of that day seizing my body, the shock and numbed fury and stomach-churning grief. Or perhaps I should say that memory brings me those emotions less often, and less fully. I can think of that day without locking myself in an instant replay. I can remember it as part of a whole. But that is not forgetting. It's only in the last five years or so that it has become a genuine memory. Before that it was a flashback.

Sometimes, when I hear people saying "Never forget," what I hear them trying to say is "Do not change the way you remember those events. Do not gain distance from the feelings that you experienced that day. Do not allow the passage of time to change your perspective. Do not let September 11th diminish in significance. Make sure it looms across your awareness the way it did that morning, blocking out everything else, as if there would never be any other, newer day. Do not move your heart from that day." Maybe not everyone who says it means that, and probably not all of them mean all of it. But it's hard for me to know what else they could be saying, when they're talking about not forgetting things that are impossible to forget.

There are people who remember events in the past as clearly as if they are living them, every single day. They're called trauma victims. Many of our veterans from Afghanistan and Iraq can remember the traumas of battle there as if they had never left, as if the most terrible eighty seconds of their lives had never stopped happening. In fact, they can't not remember those horrible events, so they really will be in Afghanistan or Iraq until those memories become less vivid and intense, until they become painful memories instead of return tickets to hell.

Part of the response to a terrible event such as September 11th is to attach importance to it. The pain and horror you felt on that day can only make sense if it is somehow for a reason, if that event that cost you so unbearably much is monumental and unforgettable. That's an understandable reaction. But making that bargain means giving the terrible event power over you forever. Refusing to move on, because you need to honor the original pain, someday becomes a way to increase the pain. And you let the trauma take over your life.

I understand that many, many people need to find a meaning in the terrible events. But I cannot bring myself to. The things that happened that day were only bad, unbearably bad. They achieved nothing good. They had no reason. The were fully and entirely wrong. We did not become a better or stronger country because three thousand of us were murdered. We were a good country already, and we did not deserve to be attacked that way. No one who was killed, no one who lost anyone, deserved that loss. And we did not learn any lesson. Osama bin Ladin had nothing to teach us. He never could have. I will not give the terrorists or their murders credit that they do not deserve. I will not make September 11th the most important day in our history. It was only one of the worst.

And I will confess that it has always been my hope, since even a few days after the attacks, that September 11th would be forgotten over time. Not for me, or by me. It's too late for anyone of my generation. But I want, have always wanted, for those days to become a distant, historical memory for the next generation to be born, and the generation after that. I want September 11th to become a boring fact in a history book, no sadder and no more important than Antietam or Little Big Horn or the Battle of Long Island. Because it won't be until the memory of September 11th fades that we have won.

The things that your country remembers forever are the defeats it did not come back from. The scars. The wounds. If our grandchildren think of September 11th the way we do, with shock and fear, if they are still angry about September 11 fifty years from today, it will be because we failed, because we never returned to being the country we once were. The point of fighting terrorism is for our grandchildren to live in a world where they are not in fear of terrorism. If they are still furious, and still fighting, fifty years from today, then we will have lost. I hope, I pray, for September 11th to become a faded and forgotten memory, a footnote written by violent men whose violence could not change the main course of history.

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