Mixed Feelings on 9/11

Posted: September 11, 2014 in Uncategorized

Like so many I remember that day, where I was, what I was doing. Like others I followed the news and participated in memorial services. And also like others I recognized anniversaries of the calamity in successive years. But now, fourteen years later, I am left with a question: “How long do you grieve?”

If you lost a loved one at the Pentagon or in the Twin Towers or as a responder or on one of those planes … the answer to the grief question is, “A very, very long time. I will struggle with this off and on for the rest of my life.” If you were a resident of the city in which the disaster took place you will feel it intensely and in a very personal way.

But how long does a society commemorate such moments? And in what way?

As I explored the forms of many world-wide remembrances of disasters they shook out in several ways, whether it was something colossal like a large scale war in which millions died, a genocide, a singular act of destruction or a natural disaster: National Days are established on the calendar, monuments or museums are erected, and programs or lectureships established to address whatever the root cause of the issue happens to be. During ongoing conflicts or violent campaigns mothers gather in town squares carrying pictures of disappeared ones. Protestors march in noisy or silent vigil.

In the case of 9/11 we erected structures, staged anniversary remembrances and, yes, conducted wars. War was not only a strategic response or the chance opportunists had been waiting for. It was a collective and very expensive purge of sadness, rage and revenge. It was a ritual that depended on blood to settle the score. Of course, it can never do that, but that’s what people hoped.

In older societies, those living centuries longer than our own, tragedies are often dealt with differently. Among the Europeans, those who have long ledgers of wars to their credit, the aftermath of a calamity is generally not something to chew but to swallow. Once when I was in Belfast during the troubles a friend took me to a hotel that had recently been bombed. When he told me that the restaurant in which we were eating had recently been blown to smithereens a short time earlier I could hardly believe my own eyes. “How can that be?” I asked him, looking around the orderly space. “Because,” he answered, “we’ve had so much devastation that when more comes we don’t hold on to it. Neither do we give any gratification to those who committed the crime in the first place.”

I have often thought of that response. And I wonder how repeating dramatic commemoration – especially of a terrorist act the magnitude of 9/11 – actually works against us. What if after we grieved, cleaned up, and resolved to change or remedy the situation that created the mess, we concentrated on leaving no trace on which we could fixate or any source of satisfaction for those who sought evil?

Most of the seventh and eighth graders beginning school this fall were not yet born when the debris came falling out of the skies that fateful September so many years ago. For them it is something that lives in a history book, taking its place along side other shattering moments on the world stage. Maybe we should begin to view it in the same way.

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