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Friday, September 11, 2009
On Remembering and Forgetting

Reflections on September 11, 2001. Some things to forget. Some things to remember.

I slept through two alarms this morning and had to hurry out the door to get my high school sophomore to school on time on my way to an early arrival at work. That's not unusual. In fact, it sounds like an ordinary day, but it's not. Some streets in American Fork are lined with flags today, because September 11 will never again be ordinary. Or perhaps it will someday; most of us don't put our flags out on December 7 any more. In any case, the ordinary things and activities of a weekday are conspicuous and self-conscious today, because this day doesn't feel as if it should be ordinary.

Eight years ago today, when my college sophomore was still in elementary school, I had time to linger before work over the radio news report of a plane flying into a World Trade Center tower. I even turned on the television at about the time the second plane hit the second tower. I remember thinking right away about a client in New York City, whose husband I knew to be a firefighter in Manhattan. I wondered if he was responding to these enormous fires, which clearly were fueled by dozens of tons of jet fuel. How could he not? And I wondered if he and his colleagues would survive the day.

Because the trivial so easily coexists with the earthshaking, I thought while watching the television that I probably should have taken the opportunity to go to the top of one of those fairy-tale buildings at least once when I was in Manhattan on several business trips during the previous year or two.

I saw the south tower collapse, then the north tower, and I knew that many firefighters had not survived the morning. Days later I learned that my client's husband was not working that week, due to an injured back. Otherwise, he would have been on duty. Most or all of the firefighters in his unit were killed, including his best friends, and you know without my telling you that his survivor's guilt was intense. But he survived.

Soon enough, I would learn that a close friend's son lost his office in the Pentagon attack, but was TDY in another state at the time. Many people were not so fortunate or, as one woman once emphasized to me, so blessed. But I'm getting ahead of my story.

I was a little late to work that day, but I went in and tried to work anyway, in a little, two-story office building in American Fork, Utah, two time zones away from the plumes of smoke rising from Manhattan, Arlington, and western Pennsylvania -- three places very familiar to me. I had a little television set at the office to keep me company on late nights and weekends, too many of which I tended to spend there. At first I tried to check in stealthily, from time to time, to see what we were learning about the morning's stunning events and to see if there were further attacks. I expected there would be. Finally, I abandoned all pretense of normalcy and just kept the television on, while puttering at some work projects which could be advanced somewhat even in the prevailing state of distraction.

Some of my work involved computer systems in Manhattan. They were on the Upper East Side, nowhere near the World Trade Center, but, alas, a major node of the Internet was somewhere beneath the rubble. It was days before things were sorted out and we could work on those systems again, weeks before those things were more or less normal again.

I mention these ordinary matters because life tries to continue after a catastrophic event -- even a major "man-caused disaster," to use the bizarre phrase currently beloved of Washington bureaucrats. "Life goes on," we like to say, or at least I do.

Sometimes I think that life's continuation is relentless and inevitable. At other times I think we drive that continuation ourselves, forcing ourselves to find in our daily routines and habits some refuge from that thing we would forget.

I saw the flags this morning and a militant voice in my head thought, "We should never forget!" But that sounds almost vengeful or vindictive. We have to forget some of those things eventually; if we don't, we'll run out of enemies -- at least guilty enemies. But it seems wrong to forget everything. There are least four things we might forget about September 11, not one, and I'm not sure it's healthy to forget them all.

First, there is the horror of seeing or participating in or finding out about what actually happened -- an individual experience, which no two people will find to be exactly alike. This, perhaps, is good to forget, lest we never enter a skyscraper or fly on an airliner or close our eyes to sleep again.

Second, there is the awareness that it could happen again, in some form or other, somewhere, to ourselves or to someone we love -- or to a thousand or ten thousand or a million people next time. We remember this and behave a little differently, personally and institutionally, rationally or otherwise, proportionally or not, and we hope that this reduces the likelihood of it happening again, or at least limits the scope of a possible recurrence.

Third, there is the anger, the thirst for vengeance. We want to rage against the perpetrators, their comrades, their organizations, their sponsors. We sometimes transfer our fury to our own people and institutions, blaming them for letting it happen, even suspecting them of collusion or conspiracy; the targets of this transferred emotion vary with our own political leanings. There was never a more misapplied word than "truthers" . . . We would best forget all this; we'll make more rational decisions, shoot ourselves in the foot less frequently, and most likely enjoy a healthier blood pressure if we let the second thing I listed be sufficient motivation to act intelligently and decisively at home and abroad against our enemies.

We would love to forget all three of these things, once and for all, and get back to our insular, provincial world, where we squabble over parking spaces and property tax rates and business executives (who may or may not make too much money) and what part of the health care industry, if any, the government should take over. It's not that these things don't matter, and they're not necessarily less important. It's just that we'd much rather face them without the constant awareness in the backs of our minds that, while we play at things inside, there are storm fronts coming and going outside -- some of which may bring, with little if any warning, metaphorical hurricanes, tornadoes, or flash floods.

I haven't yet told you the fourth thing I said we might forget -- and this one we would willingly forget. It is less a matter of trying to forget what happened as it is a matter of trying to forget what we remember at such times. We remember that we live in an imperfect, somewhat hostile world, that we cannot live outside history, and that we have not lived beyond the end of history, as some giddy souls suggested when the Iron Curtain fell. We remember that, if there is a "new world order," it may be no safer, and it certainly is less orderly, than the old world order. As one astute observer put it after September 11, 2001 -- I wish I could remember which astute observer -- that day marked the end of our vacation from history.

In a similar vein, I wonder if August 2009 marks the end of our vacation from self-government. I suppose we shall see eventually.

Why do I speak of such things? It's partly because these are simply the things that I'm thinking today. And it's partly because one of the things I'd prefer many people to think today -- many more than will ever read this blog, to be sure -- is that our lives and our citizenship require us habitually, not just occasionally, to wrench our thoughts and actions away from the home theater, away from the church pot-luck dinner, away from the checkbook and the video monitor and skinned knees and crabgrass and the portfolio, and into the political world, where we are needed to think and speak and understand and act with intelligence and courage.

This larger sphere has its adventures, but never fear; it's not all gloom and doom. In fact, more of it is happy and good than otherwise. And we can still spend plenty of time on those more personal things.

Best of all, if things get grim as we abandon forever our vacation from history, we have the memory of our September 11 heroes to urge and encourage us. I didn't list them among the things we might forget, because I would like to believe that we never can and never shall forget them.

To forget them would be to betray them and ourselves. To remember them is to endow ourselves with hope.

(If you'd like to review the events and impact of September 11, 2001, in historical detail, Wikipedia is a good place.)

Vicky Smith comments (9/13/09, via Facebook):

Although this was a horrible, evil event, I must admit that I miss the closeness that it gave all Americans for all too short a time.

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