Remembering 9/11, not as individuals but as a nation

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I began writing the first draft of this article on a Friday. There was almost nothing special about that day to distinguish it from any other. I went to class, left an add/drop form off at the registrar’s office, took a practice LSAT, and spoke to my father on the phone. Later that night, I drank wine in my friend’s dorm room and watched a Pixar film. Under ordinary circumstances, the day would have been destined to join the general foam of memory, the undifferentiated stuff out of which we build the eras of our lives.  But there was something about that day’s stillness, its easygoing warmth, its remarkable unremarkability that unnerved me. That peacefulness did not sit well with the day’s date: September 11. Fourteen years prior, three thousand people were murdered in New York, D.C., and Somerset County, Pennsylvania. Fourteen years prior, the whole dreadful adventure that has defined the United States ever since began in earnest.

The September 11 attacks are one of many horrors that the American public, with varying degrees of seriousness, has promised never to forget. For those of us with clear memories of that early autumn morning, this has so far proved an easy enough task. Indeed, we hardly need any exhortation to recall that day: how could we forget, those of us who watched the towers burn live, who saw people on the top floors so desperate to escape the flames that they took their chances with unforgiving gravity? My father can describe to me, with perfect accuracy, where exactly he was when he learned of the Kennedy assassination (football practice; his eye black ran down his cheeks as he wept). I have no doubt that I will one day participate in that same wicked ritual, centered now on the crumbling Twin Towers, with my own inquisitive progeny (a second grade classroom; our Australian vice-headmistress told us, with carefully measured calmness, that there had been a plane crash). Perhaps that future Fedullo will repeat this same cycle with their child, and the same with that child’s child, and that child’s child’s child, ad nauseam. But to remember September 11 is to do more than just remember the day itself: it is to remember that that day cleaved time in two.

For many Americans, if not most, the attacks were not merely a public tragedy. They were not the sort of thing that one could grieve from a distance: they were a pointed assault on our sense of personal security. Perhaps this sense of individual victimhood was due to our privileged, even spoiled, status among nations. We had been able to keep to our own private affairs and dramas, without much in the way of outside interference; now we were forced to square with the fact that the office workers in New York had been doing just that when they were murdered. On the day of those murders, I was eight years old, in possession of no real sense of history or proportionality. I found Imperial Stormtroopers only slightly less intimidating than their Nazi analogues; it was utterly unclear to me how to integrate jihadists into the calculus of threat. If they were capable of blowing up an important building in New York, what could be next? Would they invade and force us all to become like them? Were they going to come into my school and shoot everyone?

I can excuse my own wild misapprehension of the strength of Al Qaeda; I was a kid, not yet in possession of my second digit. But this misapprehension was, I suspect, more the rule than the exception, even among the adult population. My mother, at the urging of the Department of Homeland Security, bought roll upon roll of duct tape and a month’s supply of peanut butter, all in preparation for the next big attack, which, we were told, would likely be biological or chemical. These precautions would have likely been as useful to us in the event of an airborne anthrax attack on Philadelphia as a desk to hide under would have been to a 1960s school child in the event of a nuclear exchange. The neuroses and paranoia that gripped us as a nation was, in due time, inflicted upon both our own citizenry and the world at large. Muslims, or those who the rest of America thought looked like Muslims, were a new fifth column, to be scrutinized in airport security lines and ostracized in school classrooms. Bombing and invading Muslim countries became a sort of brave new form of national psychotherapy: hundreds of thousands of people died to restore our sense of safety. September 11 was essentially a cancer in the guise of a catastrophe: it metastasized throughout the world, leaving more and more bodies in its wake.

Now it has been fourteen years. I have not forgotten that Tuesday morning. I have not forgotten my confusion when my mother picked me up from school. I have not forgotten the crying and shrieking of two of my classmates, twins, whose mother was in New York that day. I have not forgotten the feeling of relief I felt when my father came home. I have not forgotten that night watching President Bush address the nation and in that moment believing in him, believing in the flag, believing in America. I have not forgotten these things; I will not, could not forget them. But they do not come to the forefront of my mind on their own accord; they must be unearthed, as I am doing now. I suspect that this is the case for most Americans; that our memories are becoming buried, not through any conscious effort, but merely beneath the wreckage of time.

September 11 is beginning its slow entombment. It is passing from living memory to history. Already, the world is growing fat with those who have no direct experience with that catastrophic Tuesday. Indeed, I suspect that a majority of Swarthmore students were too young to have distinct memories of it.  This distance we are slowly gaining, both individually and nationally, gives us something of an opportunity. Instead of reacting to it, we can reflect on it. We can hope to understand why it occurred, why we responded how we did, how we might have improved on that response. We can do more than remember as individuals: we can remember as a nation, as a nation that can recall its past wounds and regret its past behavior.

God, I hope that’s the case. Or else it was all just chaos, bodies stacked upon bodies, here and in Iraq and in Afghanistan and in Pakistan, briefly mourned and then forgotten. It can’t be that, can it?

1 Comment

  1. An excellent opinion piece.
    I know where I was both at 911 and
    when Kennedy was shot.
    I wonder when the next day of memory will be.

    Bob Small
    Swarthmore Borough

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