Today is September 11th and with the rising of the sun, my Facebook feed starts to swell with nationalistic posts from part of my past and anti-nationalistic posts from another part (and a handful of conspiracy theorists). I’ve talked about my relationship with this day before, and I don’t really see a reason to revisit that. But there is one thing on my mind right now, the unofficial motto of today “Never Forget”. While this is clearly a knock-off (tribute?) to “Never Again*” and the holocaust, it makes me wonder, should we forget?
Memories are valuable, but only if they improve the world by helping us make better decisions. If a memory causes us grief or hatred, then it does not serve a purpose and we should work to overcome it. If a memory traps us in the past then we should work to move beyond it. If a memory builds walls, divides us, dehumanizes others, and makes the world a darker place, then we should forget it. If a memory justifies future atrocities in your mind, then the memory is not a tool for good, but one for evil.
But, if the memory helps inspire goodness in your heart then hold onto it. If thinking about 9/11 makes you think about the bravery of the firefighters who worked tirelessly to help the victims of the attack, then use it to motivate bravery in your life. If the memory reminds you of the way your community came together, despite racial or religious lines, to help each other out with love and comfort and care, then use that event to inspire selflessness in your life. If you can look back on that day and realize that you have followed Christ’s example to love thy enemy and turn the other cheek, if you see that day as a moment of flawed humans who need love and compassion instead of an evil, inhuman “other”, then remember that day.
We must also ask, are there other memories or events that can inspire that kind of motivation without the temptation to hate or dwell on tragedy? Would it not be better to think about the brave women and men who are fighting raging wildfires to protect us in the west? Or the volunteers with the Coast Guard who brave the rough seas to rescue people? We have doctors that cross borders to heal the sick, we have families who risk everything to flee their home countries to make a better life for their children, we have heroes everywhere. Heroism doesn’t require an enemy or evil.
So, what will it take to move on? I wish I had a good answer to that.
What did it take for the US to move beyond the attack on Pearl Harbor? I’m not a historian but, unfortunately, it seems like vengeance worked. We had a feeling of superiority after slaughtering of hundreds of thousands of civilians to feel strong again. We were sucker punched and responded by blowing up the city block that the attacker lived on. I hope that we have moved beyond that, as a culture. I hope revenge isn’t how we move beyond 9/11. I hope we can someday have the same relationship with the Middle East that we have with Japan and that it won’t require more death.
Personally, I think that moving on is actually going to be more difficult in the modern age. We have social networks that overwhelm us and demand our attention, and many of these bubbles have become feedback loops of nativism and militarism. There are people who feel like perpetual victims of the attacks on 9/11, the day isn’t one of remembrance but one of feeling empowered to cause more harm.
I don’t see this kind of behavior from the men and women that actually served in the military though. They may put up a flag or share their story, but there isn’t a violent fetishism to their actions. No, it is my parent’s generation that seems to have difficulty moving on. Soldiers have seen the horrors of war and realize that there is nuance and subtly to world events. Even civilians of my generation understand this because they grew up and were educated in a time when Middle East politics were being studied and discussed. We recognize that 9/11 wasn’t a sucker punch by someone that hated the US for illogical reasons, it was the result of complex geopolitical actions that the US was part of. We share the guilt, and that is difficult for some people to accept.
My parent’s generation seems to see this from a very “black and white” perspective. They experienced the most horrific thing imaginable, someone put their children in danger or killed them. The sin of killing their child is, for many people, unforgivable. Instead of reflecting on Christ’s teachings they spout things like “Kill ’em all, let god sort ’em out”. To them, Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War” was right:
You’ve thrown the worst fear
That can ever be hurled
Fear to bring children
Into the world
For threatening my baby
Unborn and unnamed
You ain’t worth the blood
That runs in your veins
Even Jesus would never
Forgive what you do
And if Jesus won’t forgive them then they must be inhuman and unworthy of human forgiveness. But forgiveness isn’t for the person who hurt you, it is for yourself. That is a great irony, by “Never” forgetting or forgiving we only hurt ourselves and our nation. We allow the memories of those events to make our future darker, to prevent love and understanding across nations and religions, to fill our own hearts with hatred and anger and resentment.
So, should we forget? I don’t know, but we should definitely forgive everyone involved, from the United States government to al Queda. All should be forgiven because that is what is necessary to make the future a better place. The past is lost to us, it is beyond our action, but the future can be shaped into a brighter place.
*There is something deeply uncomfortable about the US kind of ripping off the “Never Again” statement. As terrible as the 9/11 attacks were, there is simply no comparison between it and the Holocaust. Besides, “Never Again” is something to be acted upon to better the world and “Never Forget” is simply a mental state. It is a shittier phrase.