9/11 and the Power of Memory

There are a lot of intersectional thoughts on a day like today.

Yesterday was the first day of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. I’m Jewish. So it begins a traditional 10-day period of reflection to look forward, look back, reconcile, review, and repent by the Fast Day, Yom Kippur (in 10 days, starting on the evening of Sept. 19, which this year falls on “Talk Like A Pirate” Day. Another coincidence providing strange memes appearing in my Facebook timeline.)

Today is September 11. In 2001, I was in the middle of my morning routine at a public high school, walking through the media center, which always had morning news show tuned in as the librarian and her assistant went about their “bookkeeping.” I’m pretty sure it was NBC’s Today program, but a calm group of reporters talking with the latest celebrity, or touting an upcoming news segment was not onscreen.

There was a tower. Someone was saying there was smoke. In the next moment a camera panned up and there was a trail of smoke leading from the skyscraper’s upper floors. All the major networks had offices in New York City. It was “local news” to them: a plane had crashed into a towering skyscraper). Somebody suggested a flight navigator had gotten off-track from JFK. No one knew.

I stopped walking through the library and sat down at a table. The librarian said hello. I said, there seems to be a plane crash. The assistant paused. “Where?” “New York,” I answered.

The three of us were still watching coverage of emergency crews arriving at the scene when bystanders screamed about a second plane that was traveling between the buildings. And the cameras this time caught the impact, showing the second plane rolling slightly, making a much bigger gash in the side of the second tower.

Freakish, but still, it wasn’t until the plane approaching the Pentagon was news — and the Pennsylvania field saw the heroism of passengers aboard the aptly named United Flight 93, that the word “terrorism” was spoken. The United States airspace was closed while we still had few answers. First piece of coherent connection: all four planes had apparently originated from Logan Airport in Boston. A few people had been contacted by loved ones on Flight 93 to confirm that crash was the results of fighting back against hijackers.

Over the ensuing three days as the skies over the United States remained cleared, all flights grounded, investigators, rescuers, volunteers, converged on the scenes. No matter what cameras can bring to those of us who were not there, the nightmare experience of those who were there can never truly be captured. Sights, sounds, smells go as deep as bone for all of them.

The remainder of that first day though I spent watching school officials stress and parents demanding to collect their kids from school. I heard whispers that Disney World was a target too.

Within weeks, an “official” response came through the U.S. Legislature — the Patriot Act: a series of suppression laws that more rightly belonged in a police state, was passed lightning fast under the guise of “this will never happen again.” We found out most of the hijackers were Saudi nationals, but the mastermind was Osama bin Laden, and so we declared war on Afghanistan and not Saudi Arabia. Then the news reported that Arab-Americans were attacked on their hometown streets in “middle America.”

I kept thinking we’re not solving anything; we’re just creating more problems. Years later, we have reaped what we have sown: identity politics that seeks and exploits division, separation, isolation, panic-response, stand your ground. We are being driven, as a country, assuredly off a cliff right now as those planes were directed, by intent, into those buildings all those years ago.

I think memory is a good thing. Children without it cannot learn not to make the same mistake twice. However, I think sometimes as we grow up, we forget this first most important lesson of memory. It is not to wallow or justify pain, but to learn, to improve, and to become better.

Becoming worse means they win. They wanted to take down American ideals. We have, unfortunately, let them.

This November, stop the march to the cliff: vote for reasonable, rational, thoughtful leaders. Become one yourself. Stop listening to the hatred, and start speaking with love.

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