America the Amnesiac: On Remembering to Forget on September 11
For ten years now, we've repeated the magic words, the gestures, the rituals. Today, of course, we can hardly forget to remember: to return to that luminous Tuesday morning, when the autumn day turned to darkness, and thousands turned to dust. And yet we find, more and more with every passing anniversary, that to remember is to forget. For every thing we are called upon to remember, there is something else we are compelled to forget.
Our American amnesia has been wrought, not only by the collective trauma of 9/11 itself, but by the mists of political myth, by the fog of perpetual war--and by the shadow of the walls that have gone up between us, as Americans, and between us and the rest of the world. Between the wars and the walls, the shock and the awe, our hindsight has proven to be anything but 20/20.
So let us now praise forgotten men and women. Let's remember all 2,996 lost to us that morning--including the Muslims who were murdered (and subsequently dishonored), as well as the unnamed and undocumented workers whose families were afraid to come forward. Let's remember the first responders, volunteers, and cleanup workers who were sickened by the air, but went untreated for years as every level of government denied them the care they needed.
And let's remember the other victims named in a recent statement by September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows: "On this day we ask those who feel compassion for our loss to expand their compassion to include others...Innocent families in Afghanistan and Iraq experiencing the loss of their loved ones...Muslim-Americans subjected to bias and violence at home; those denied the protections of our Constitution and law, whether in Guantanamo or our own country."
To be sure, a day such as 9/11/11 ought to be our time to come together and commemorate our lost: to share stories, share silence, join hands. This was to be the promise of the tenth anniversary. But this year, conditions are anything but auspicious: We yearn for peace, but instead, we get a show of force in our streets and an escalation of the war overseas. We yearn for fellowship, but instead, we get fear, loathing, Islamophobia. We yearn for truth and a measure of justice, but instead, we get amnesty for war criminals, jailtime for whistleblowers, fiction by Dick Cheney.
Meanwhile, community centers are torn down as we build shopping malls at Ground Zero. Dissidents are sent to the Tombs as we build Freedom Towers to the sky. New Yorkers are driven from their homes to make the city safe for the tourists of history. And we memorialize the dead, as we keep killing (or making a killing) in their name.
Perhaps it is only right that we be reminded of the "dark side" of the decade, if only so that we might ask of ourselves: What kind of society have we become? Are we a better society for all the indefinite detentions, the deportations, the extraordinary renditions? Are we a safer society after ten years in Af-Pak and eight years in Iraq? Are we a freer society now that we can count on the CIA to infiltrate our communities, the NYPD to tell us where we can and cannot protest, the Radical Right to tell us where we can and cannot worship?
Was there really no alternative? And is there really no alternative today? Only an amnesiac would answer in the affirmative. For ten years after 9/11, the Arab Spring is here, reminding us that the future need not look anything like the past. Yet the past hasn't gone anywhere. It still demands its day of reckoning. But first, let us say Kaddish for the dead.