Can I tell you something I’ve never told anyone else, dear reader? Okay. When 9/11 happened I was a student at the University of Pittsburgh. As a film student, I was taking the majority of my classes in the Cathedral of Learning. The CoL is the tallest building dedicated to higher learning at least in this country, possibly in the world. I was terrified to go to classes after September 11th. I did not want to attend my classes on the 3rd floor, or the 5th floor, or the 10th floor, or the 34th floor. I struggled mightily that year. I told everyone it was because I was so invested in the work I was doing with young people on the North Side of Pittsburgh through The Pittsburgh Project. That was somewhat true. But it was also because there were days when I just couldn’t make myself go to class. I imagined sitting in my medieval literature class and watching a plane fly directly at me during the lecture. I imagined fighting to get through to the elevator after watching yet another viewing of Battleship Potemkin. I feared not making it through all ten commandments of The Decalogue.
Yesterday I made a comment about disliking social media on Facebook. Amidst the small trickle of “Amens” were a few people questions pushing back. I realize that a tweet or a Facebook status is often a glib form of self expression, especially on topics that are really important. I feel like I need to unpack my dislike for our commemoration of 9/11 in a more thoughtful way.
Let me start with the “Never Forget” motto that is at the center of the 9/11 commemoration ethos. I’d as soon forget the birth of my kids as I would forget that horrific day. I remember where I was, who I was with, what I did, what I felt, who I talked to, and what I watched, which was mostly the second plane flying into the second tower on a continuous loop. I remember worrying about my future wife’s sister who was a flight attendant. I remember fielding calls of whether or not I was okay because all of the early reports of the fourth plane said that it crashed in Pittsburgh. I remember going to pray with the new church I was apart of and more than ever wanting certainty of the realness of my faith.
To ask those of us who lived through it to never forget is insulting. In any other situation of trauma, we would not ask the traumatized to never forget. “Don’t you ever forget that time you were raped!” “Remember that time you were robbed at gunpoint!” “Always remember when your dad walked out on your family!” It’s insensitive and demeaning to throw such platitudes around.
Here’s my other, more global opposition to the “never forget” adage; our not forgetting has been the core of our not healing. Those in public life who tell us to “never forget” would often have us do so in order that we might remember the victimization that we felt that day and use it as a justification for either forfeiting our rights in the name of security or victimizing others in the name of justice. The call to remember is never a call to scrutinize the American imperialist enterprise. It is never a call a to think through how our policies have created disenfranchised young men around the world who saw this as their only option. It is never a call to repentance for the ways that America has equipped and empowered those who would do violence in the name of freedom. Were our call to remembrance also a call to analysis or a call to accountability, then maybe it would strike as a useful endeavor. As it is currently presented, it is simply a call to remember the fear and helplessness that I felt on that day, and that serves only my darkest demons.
9/11 was a national trauma. As someone who has been dealing with my own personal traumas therapeutically, I know that memory can be an important part of the healing process. But if the intent is not to open the wound for the sake of airing it out, then we only open ourselves up to be infected by hatred, fear, and violence. (…hope I didn’t beat that metaphor to death…). I think that there is some good that come from remembering 9/11 if we are willing to do the work of accepting how small and childlike we all felt on that day and the days that followed. If we were really willing to dive into the psyche of nation that was at the time making decisions based on fear. If we were willing to admit that we made decisions in Afghanistan and Iraq based off of that smallness and insecurity that we felt and repent of the lives that were lost or irreparably altered because of our fear-laced actions, then I would say that we’re getting somewhere. Instead we shine two lights representing the symbols of our economic empire instead of questioning the culpability of in wars and conflicts across the globe.
It is because I love my country that I want it to heal from this wound that has plagued us for almost half of my life. 9/11 was an invitation to the be on equal footing with the rest of the world. What we experienced one day is what many nations deal with daily. We had an opportunity to join more fully into the world community and now we are retreating into a new age of isolationism.
Personally, I will never forget 9/11. It was a beautiful, early fall day. The sun was shining, the air was brisk, and the wind was pleasant. And with that backdrop, the world was being changed forever and I believe for the worse. America rallied around its military might and ability to create wealth for the very few in the name of patriotism. We became less than what we are. This is what I remember about 9/11… and it continually breaks my heart.