New York is now my city and has been so for just over a month. I've arrived in time to be here as the city commemorates the tenth anniversary of 9/11. Ten years ago, I was in Jackson, MS. As I was driving into work at Millsaps College, I turned the radio on to NPR and heard word that planes had crashed into the World Trade Center. My first and immediate thought: Oh, this is like the infamous Orson Welles broadcast of The War of the Worlds, the one that panicked people because they thought the planet really was being attacked by aliens. But in another instant, I realized this was no fiction. I turned the car around, went back home and turned on the TV.
New York has a special place in my heart. In childhood, I lived in Brooklyn when I came to America from India. I thought of Brooklyn when I heard that debris from the towers had made it all the way there. I also realized that it was likely that someone I knew could be in those buildings. I found out, well after the fact, that two acquaintances should have been there, but one was late for work and another had stayed home to write his dissertation.
Virtually all of us remember where we were when word came to us of the horror. And then, most of us watched the events of the day unfold in real time. Recalling these memories ten years on, I find myself asking, just what do people mean when they say, "We must never forget?" What do those words mean? Barring dementia, I doubt I could forget those nightmarish events, and I was far removed from the scene.
Direct survivors of those events might well wish they could forget as they find themselves shackled to flashes of memory that intrude into waking life with such vividness that the line between past and present is stripped away. When visited by traumatic memory, the past refuses to stay safely in the past, and the flow of time is interrupted. Forgetting is a luxury that is not afforded them. When "forgetting" comes, it comes only after a great deal of intentional labor and gracious healing.
The relationship between memory and trauma is notoriously complicated. Survivors of trauma suffer such grave wounds that memory and even identity can be shattered. In many cases, survivors of rape, for example, cannot consciously recall the event itself as ruthless violence ruptures recollection. And yet, the body cannot soon forget but instead manifests this incapacity through the symptoms of PTSD; these symptoms show that the survivor has not yet been released from the grip of violence.
The gravest manifestation of the power of violence to remain alive and virulent occurs when the violated become abusers. When the venom of the abuser is injected into the abused, its unprocessed toxicity can perpetuate the cycle of abuse from generation to generation. The living death caused by what remains unhealed and so unforgettable is volatile.
Is collective memory in the wake of trauma akin to individual memory? It seems safe to say that survivors of trauma are deprived, in some measure, of the freedom to remember or forget. Autonomy has been stripped from memory. But can an entire nation be traumatized in analogous fashion? And if a people can be so traumatized, can its incapacity to forget traumatic violence generate in the nation the compulsion to repeat violence?
I do not know the answers to these weighty questions, but ten years after 9/11, the time has come to ask them honestly and forthrightly. We must recognize that the work of remembering is fraught, complicated, and even dangerous.
Over the last ten years, we have seen that some of our leaders have elected to keep the wound of 9/11 fresh in the collective consciousness in order to justify war. The nation is, time and again, tutored to remember 9/11 so that leaders can torture and launch unjustifiable wars on false pretenses. The 3000 lives lost on 9/11 have been used, or rather abused, to justify the deaths of over 100,000 souls in Iraq. Is this why we seek to remember?
Whether an entire people can be traumatized is a technical question I shall leave to others expert in trauma theory. But it seems evident that social groups can and so therefore must exercise the work of responsible remembering. The very urgency of the demand, "Never forget!" demonstrates that collective memory is fragile and requires deliberate labor.
Whether directly traumatized or not, a people can ask several questions: Why are we performing the work of memory? How should that work be undertaken?
Do our rituals serve to foment a perpetual sense of grievance, or might they bring about healing? How can we protect the dignity of the grief work of those who were the primary victims and survivors of 9/11? How is our grief unlike theirs? What can we do to insure that our grief work does not impede theirs?
The most urgent question we can pose is this: does our memorializing divide or reconcile?
If 9/11 is deployed to set our nation against others and divide us from within by pitting religious communities against each other, then our remembering is cheap and perverse. Such remembering diminishes the heroic sacrifices of those who died serving all New Yorkers that day, regardless of race or religion.
The work of memory is neither intrinsically innocent nor noble. Everything depends on the how and the why. Ten years on, it will no longer suffice to proclaim loudly that we will never forget.
When the impulse to remember is severed from our deepest longings for reconciliation and love, we leave ourselves vulnerable to those who would hijack the nation's hurt in order to injure others and perpetuate the malignant cycle of hatred and violence.
This we must no longer permit.