Two beams of light split the sky again this week, in memory of the Twin Towers that fell in the attack on 9/11/01. Every year for the past 19 years they are lit – mesmerizing, beautiful in a ghostly way, reminding the city of all that was lost on that day, just one part of the nation’s public ritual of remembering.
I too remember. I was in my apartment downtown and saw the towers fall from the top of my building, as people next to me collapsed, hysterical. I saw people with what looked like chalk on their faces, streaming past, fleeing; and people lined up to give blood for injured people who never materialized. Early the next day, in what I suspect was a state of shock, I went for a run downtown, my shoes leaving prints in the fine dust that covered the ground. Passing a collection of hundreds of baby strollers that had been abandoned, I was approaching Ground Zero as it smoldered, when a police officer asked me with genuine disbelief: “What are you doing?”
What am I doing in response to 9/11 is a question I have been trying to answer for the past 20 years. As we perform our observances this year, I am already turning towards the next; and wonder what the 21st anniversary, and 22nd might look like, with the question of how long will we continue to commemorate the events of 9/11/01, and what lessons are we hoping to learn from it?
The questions of “how long?” and “to what end?” remind me of a conversation I had with my mother when I was a young college graduate. My mother challenged me about my knowledge of Pearl Harbor. “Do you even know what happened?” she asked. I replied that I knew about it. I had, after all, taken the requisite courses on history that included Pearl Harbor and the entry of the United States into World War II. However, I had no personal knowledge or experience of how the event and the ensuing years resonated in the psyche of millions of Americans like my mother who was 13 at the time, and who 40 years later would abruptly question her son about the event.
Pearl Harbor and 9/11 are different, and I don’t want to draw too many comparisons. However, both attacks originated from afar, and happened on what was understood to be American territory. They resulted in similar numbers of American deaths and created an atmosphere of heightened alert for threats both from outside and inside the borders that resulted in military action abroad as well as internal abrogation of civil liberties of American citizens.
The two events are also both remembered in official ways with public rituals. This coming December 7th will be the 80th observance of what is now officially known as National Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day, a designation decreed by the United States Congress in 1994. The people who experienced Pearl Harbor firsthand and feel it in their gut like my mother did are dwindling. The YouTube video from last year’s observance of National Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day has barely broken a thousand views. I am moved watching it, as a new generation of Navy personnel mourn the losses and praise the “greatest generation” for their sacrifice and courage. I am glad to be one of a small number of people who continues to see who they were and what they went through. Yet the ritual faces backwards into history, carefully preserving a memory and legacy. The final unintentional affect is that the Pearl Harbor Remembrance creates a resting place for events of the day that President Roosevelt declared would live in infamy.
As with me and Pearl Harbor, there is an entire generation for whom 9/11 is an event that happened in the past of which they have no visceral memory or reaction. Yet 9/11 continues to affect their lives as much as anyone, and our observances must be focused on the present and the future as much they are in the past.
This week I was privileged to listen to four Americans from four different religious traditions talk about their memories from twenty years ago: John Inazu, a Christian, had been at the Pentagon when it was attacked; Robert Klitman, from the Jewish tradition, had a sister who was killed when the Twin Towers fell; Alia Bilal, a Muslim, had bomb threats against her school in Chicago the day of the attack, and Valarie Kaur, a Sikh, whose beloved uncle was murdered in a hate crime in the name of revenge. As they took turns remembering what had happened that day, they acknowledged they had been unprepared for the rawness of their emotions and how near to the surface the heartbreak remained.
Yet heartbreak from the past was not all that joined the four speakers. Each of them, in their own way, inspired by their faith traditions and ethical commitments had for the last 20 years worked to increase understanding and to attempt to strengthen the bonds between different communities. The moderator, Eboo Patel, founder of IFYC, shared how 9/11 had been a powerful motivator for the work of the interfaith organization he has led for the past 20 years.
9/11 shaped not only the personal lives of the people on the panel, but the society and wider global community in which we all live. The aftershocks of the attacks continue; and in some ways have gotten stronger. Terrorism, hate crimes, racial and religious bigotry, violence, tribalism, war – all of what define the events surrounding 9/11 – continue. Young people who were not alive when the attacks occurred are the unfortunate heirs of the legacy. My prayer is that for as long as we remember 9/11, that we will take time to listen to the stories of loss that break our hearts, and join together in finding ways to heal the division, violence and hate that continue to tear apart our world. As Ms. Bilal said in the conversation I attended: “I think that is so much of the work that many of us do… the hard, messy, sometimes really difficult work of bringing people’s hearts together.” That is how I hope we will commemorate 9/11. For as long as it takes.
American Civic Life
We Commemorate, We Commit: Out of Catastrophe, a Conversation on Connection and Repair
American Civic Life