The rote and meaningless portrayal of solemnity.
One of the hardest things about getting older is understanding that the moments that are clearest for you, that have such resonance and meaning, mean nothing to the young. As someone who was 20 years old on 9/11, I’m always a little shocked to remember that for teenagers and even some 20-somethings, 9/11 has very little personal resonance. Or at least, an ever diminishing return on significance.
Never was this concept more clear than when I was a teacher.
Every year I’d assign my students an essay or article about 9/11 – most often Tom Junod’s Falling Man which I recommend, nay demand, you read – then spend the entire class discussing it, their own experience of 9/11, and what those experiences have come to mean now. In the beginning the assignment was a hit. But as years and semesters wore on, my students’ memories grew fuzzier around the edges, their experiences less immediate… not so much recalling an experience as estimating it from an optometrist’s chart.
I was in bed when the first plane hit. It was right at the start of my sophomore year of college. I was living in my first apartment. Very adult. Very exciting. My roommate woke me up to tell me there’d been some accident in New York; I should come see. We spent the next thirty minutes watching the tower smolder in the background as we gathered our things for class. Then the second plane hit. At some point we sat down and watched the towers collapse on television. We watched it all in near silence. And then, knowing no other alternative, we grabbed our bags and went to class.
It’s bonkers in retrospect, but then everything is bonkers in retrospect. Absolutely nothing had prepared us for something so upending and uncanny. On campus, our fellow students drifted dutifully from class to class; teachers half-taught their lessons, half-counseled their kids; classmates sat in silence, entranced by the dream of it all, until their cellphones rang, and they exploded from the room to answer it. My university would cancel classes later in the day, of course. But for a few hours that morning, we all drifted together.
Eight years later, I took a job teaching at that same university… and every September the sights and smells of campus autumn did their Proust thing. Threw me right back to that morning. Only now, when I’d drift into class on 9/11… I’d have to teach something. Chaucer, most likely… September is always time for Chaucer. I wanted to understand 9/11 as the social metaphor it was becoming. We were already two wars and countless atrocities in… 9/11 had come to mean so much already that I wanted to know what my students made of it – the remembrances, the rhetoric, the vinyl towers silhouetted on windshields, the magnetic American flag bumper stickers, the anthems and the bonfires… and always the thrumming, insistent creed that we Never Forget. That’s the one that always got me.
I assigned a short essay on the meaning of that phrase – Never Forget. Something like, “Why do we say never forget, and not always remember?” The answers I got were varied and vivid. Conversation lasted all class long. At least in the early years.
I’ve always found Never Forget a troubling phrase. It always rang hollow to me – to expect a unified response to something we all experienced together, sure… but ultimately, terribly alone. We commemorate as a society, sure. But we remember alone. We mourn alone. We look for meaning alone. It’s a lonely business, being a person.
There’s something tiresome, and to me deeply disrespectful, about how quickly we commodified 9/11 – the bumper stickers, t-shirts, and decals, the syrupy gifs and memes and schlocky slogans all insisting upon a certain tone of how to remember. Or, rather, how we must refuse to forget. Never Forget was just branding. And a brand is just an empty promise, written in the language of sincerity, to sell you something you don’t need. Because if you really needed it… no one would have to tell you to buy it.
Never Forget has always been too easy to say, and too cheap to deliver. It requires nothing more of us than obeisance. It calls upon no action. Demands no reflection. Summons no change. It urges no understanding of what caused it, nor wisdom for how best to prevent another moment like it. “Never Forget” demands nothing but our static, silent, horrified appraisal. It’s a symbol, sacred in the public imagination… yet entirely devoid of meaning. It’s content.
For those too young to remember 9/11, it will no doubt vanish into the horizon soon enough. You can’t forget something you couldn’t remember in the first place. But for the rest of us? What will we do with these two decades of perspective? What do we do with all of… this?
If the last 20 years of history are any indication… we’ll do nothing. Nothing at all.