Saturday, September 10, 2011

Remember and Forget

“Memories can be sad, but sometimes they can also save you.”
--Takayuki Ikkaku

“Where were you when it happened?” Ten years ago this next Sunday, Americans will ask that question and then we will remember: where we were, what we were doing and how we felt when we got the news on September 11th, 2001.  We will retrieve that at once both very personal and also collective memory.  “I was on the way to work when it came on the radio.”  “A neighbor called me and told me to turn on the TV.”  “I was in the office and everyone’s cell phones all started ringing and ringing.” “My wife was away on a business trip and I so needed to just hear her voice and know she was ok.”  

Remembering 9/11 and doing so as a community, together. It is rare for so many people to share such a common memory. It happens once in a generation, if at all.  When Pearl Harbor was attacked.  When Kennedy was shot.  When King was struck down. When the Challenger exploded. These collective memories aren’t always so traumatic.  Some are joyous.  When the war finally ended. When the Sox won the World Series.  When America elected its first African-American President. 

But always in the act of remembering, we humans make choices about what is remembered and more important how those memories are understood and then shape us in the present.  Though we might imagine human memory as a reliable objective snapshot of life, memory is instead a subjective recall, a choice about what we will hold on to from the past and what we will discard.  As the philosopher Voltaire once said, “Life is always lived forward but understood backward.”

And so what will we as Americans and humans remember this week about 9/11, ten years on?  What do we want to cherish and never, ever forget?  What do we wish to let go of and just leave behind?

I want to remember the unity and community I felt as never before and never since, with my fellow Americans.  It’s sad that it often takes a collective crisis to create such an atmosphere of mutual care and dependence but on 9/11 and in the days that followed, I felt more “American” than I ever have.  Not in a jingoistic or triumphant kind of way, but in sympathy and even love.  We all wanted to help somehow, remember?  Millions of us rushed to give blood and donate supplies to our neighbors in need.  Thousands of brave first responders from around the country rushed to assist in the doomed rescue effort at Ground Zero in New York City.  Folks gathered together that Tuesday night in huge numbers and prayed in tens of thousands of houses of worship.  We cheered and wept at the stories of firefighters who rushed up the stairs into the burning towers.  “Greater  love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”  I want to remember President George Bush calling Americans to respect and protect their Muslim sisters and brothers, his reminder to us that Islam was finally a religion of peace. 

Let’s remember all these things.

But I also want to forget some things about that day and the weeks and months and years which have followed.  How afraid we were and still are, a pervasive collective fear which can bring out the worst of human behavior.  Fear based suspicion which still drives some Americans to stereotype, malign even attack Muslims or anyone who does not look or pray or act like “us”.  Revenge born of fear which birthed two wars which are still ongoing a decade later, the longest military conflicts in the history of our nation.  I want to forget the ugly underbelly of religion which appeared on 9/11, a fundamentalist brand of faith which insists upon a narrow and cruel image of God, One who would justify the  killing of innocents as somehow being “faithful”.   

Let’s forget these things.

9/11 happened, some 3,650 days ago, and yesterday on a bright and beautiful blue sky September morning, remember? There is no escaping this memory.  But what will we finally learn from it?  Has it changed us for the better or for the worst?  I don’t think we can rightly answer those questions yet.  But this we can do: remember and forget.  Remember and honor the dead and the lost and the real heroes of that awe-ful day and how we were one.  Forget the ways 9/11 has made us a more frightened and defensive country and citizenry. 

Memories can save us. Memories can condemn us.  The choice is up to us.      

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