This morning, September 11, 2105, my Facebook screens are filled with exhortations to remember 9-11, as though I could forget it. I doubt that any American who was old enough that day to realize what was happening will forget. The question is not, “Will we remember?” but, “What have we done with our remembering, and what will we continue to do with it?” In what direction will the memories lead us?
“Remember the Alamo!” was a battle cry, a call reinforcing the urge to take revenge. Is remembering the attacks of September 11, 2001 the same kind of exhortation? Our vengeance after 9-11 was disgraceful. We invaded a nation that had not attacked us and was not developing nuclear weapons. We attacked and invented reasons as we went along, as the formerly invented reasons proved false. We celebrated “shock and awe” as though as though it were a fireworks show and people were not dying on the ground. Our vengeance created al Qaeda in Iraq and the Islamic State.
Certainly remembering 9-11 can and should include holding in memoriam those who were killed in the attacks by terrorists, caring in our actions as well as our hearts for the responders still suffering the consequences of their heroism, and respecting the grief of the people whose loved ones were slain. This kind of remembering can generate empathy and compassion for all who suffer and are put to grief; it can also reinforce our responsibility to police officers, firefighters, medics, and others who still live with the effects of that terrible day.
But does our remembering move us to be more human within a world of suffering and loss or, on the contrary, more self-centered in our identity politics and more strident in our nationalism? Surely we do not think that we alone have suffered unjustly. I hope we do not believe that ours is the only suffering that matters.
I feel a strong aversion to comparisons of human suffering, as though the murder of fewer, by the measure of a body count, were less grievous. Yes, indeed, there have been many atrocities in recent history quantitatively greater than 9-11, but that fact does not reduce the grief of that day, as long as we do not try to make ours the greatest or the only grief that matters.
This morning I return to the sermon I preached the Sunday following the attacks, and two paragraphs stand out for me. The first is in memoriam:
We come today to our God to mourn, to grieve as a nation and a people. The innocent and the courageous have perished together, and we don’t yet even know most of their names. We mourn for people sitting in their offices unaware that death was flying toward them at jet speed. We mourn for firefighters, police officers, and rescue workers who charged into the tumult to help the victims and then became victims. We marvel at acts of heroism that, as so often happens, probably did not feel like heroism at all to the people performing them. They were simply doing what they knew had to be done. And how many heroic acts were there that we will never even know of?
The second raises the questions of which way our remembering will lead us:
Now, I have to wonder what it is we will take from this living nightmare and generalize for use in the days and years ahead. That is the biggest question. What will we take from this terrible experience and internalize so it becomes part of us and part of our nature to use in the pursuit of life? Will it be fear? Hatred? The understandable but deadly lust for revenge? No doubt some of it will be patriotism, a drawing together as Americans, but what kind of patriotism? Will it be a kind that makes us supportive of all Americans and more fully and productively part of our world, or will it be a jingoism that cares only for its own distorted image of America? I hope and pray that what we have experienced as a nation and continue to experience will draw us into solidarity with people around this world who experience the same type of horrors, many on a regular basis. We have seen people in business suits suddenly reduced to refugees running for their lives. Can we learn to feel more deeply for the world’s millions of refugees and victims? Just a short time ago, Ted Koppel apologized to us because his Nightline show and the rest of the news media had for so long ignored the Democratic Republic of the Congo where, since 1998, war has displaced hundreds of thousands of people and killed millions more.
When I wrote that sermon, we had not yet invaded Iraq or even gone after Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan. We were still in shock as a nation.
Where are we in our minds and hearts and in our world now, on September 11, 2015? The same voices that called for war after 9-11 are calling for war again. The backlash against our actions in the Middle East continues to be terrible, and the refugees are overwhelming an economically struggling Europe as xenophobic fever rises. What has our remembering taught us?
Shall we remember 9-11? I have no choice because I cannot possibly forget it. But I remain convinced that the better question is, How? How shall we remember that terrible day, and what will be the effects of our remembering – upon us and upon our world?