“… what they did for this country is still etched in the minds of not only you, but millions of Americans, forever. That’s why it’s so important that this memorial be preserved and go on for our children and our grandchildren, and our great-grandchildren, and our great-great-grandchildren — because it is what makes it so exceptional. And I think they all appreciate, as I do, more than they can tell you, the incredible bravery your family members showed on that day.”
–Vice-President Joe Biden, speaking at the Flight 93 National Memorial on 9/11/12
“Every year, we have more and more students who don’t remember 9/11,” an administrator correctly noted at the first faculty meeting of the year, when discussing the plans for our annual 9/11 assembly. Perhaps some felt the urge to cluck their tongues and shake their heads, as we might when hearing that fewer students each year read books, eat dinner with their families, or consider a career in public service. But the fact is that a high school freshman this September was no more than three years old on 9/11, and our seniors were only beginning first grade. It’s not their fault if the worst day in our memories is a blur or a blank in theirs.
Each generation builds memorials to tragedy and loss, and each generation is born into a world more cluttered with monuments than the one before. The command to remember the victims and heroes of battles and disasters is strange. The survivors and witnesses can never forget, even if they want to, and the children, no matter how obedient and patriotic, can’t be ordered to remember if they simply don’t.
For those who lived through 9/11, or any other historical tragedy, the experience is written indelibly on every sense. People can tell you what time it was, what they saw and smelled, who was standing next to them, at the moment they witnessed it or heard the news. The memory is visceral, disruptive, a Continental Divide that separates life before the event from life after it. If we let it, it can shape our politics, our relationships, our identities. Those who were there carry the memory in their bodies in a way the next generation can’t, just as our parents and grandparents who lived through the Great Depression or World War II could never really explain their suffering to us. We were bored, even if polite, and after a while, they stopped trying.
Every village green and city square bears a memorial to a tragedy. Marble and metal are permanent, but language is so mutable, such an imperfect conduit for grief. Tributes that must have seemed tender and stately when the words were freshly carved ring pious, jingoistic and false in modern ears. Good art connects us to the living, breathing human beings of the past, but these public monuments aren’t art. We feel nothing for them, other than perhaps a vague sense of guilt for not caring about something that was obviously important a long time ago, or maybe, if the memorial is sufficiently bombastic or sappy, irritation.
But here in the New York metropolitan area, next to the Civil War obelisks, our parks have shinier plaques to newer losses, embossed with the names of ordinary people who got on the train to go to work one exquisitely lovely September morning and never came home. Once everyone who remembers what the weather felt like that morning is gone, these plaques and their symbols will require background knowledge to understand. The towers, the three firemen raising the flag, the weird geometry of skewed steel beams will make as much inherent sense as the laurels, palm fronds, and crossed sabers of Civil War monuments make to us.
Even in the 9/11 Memorial at the World Trade Center, a place dedicated entirely to remembering, the photographs of the victims that will always look contemporary to us will look dated to a younger audience in just a few years, if they don’t already. Hairstyles, makeup, and photographic technology will age those portraits until they look to the new generation the way high school yearbooks from the 1950s look to us. Future visitors won’t think, “It could have been me in that tower.” They might think, “It could have been my father,” and someday, “My grandfather? Great-grandfather? Is it time for lunch yet?”
The demand that our children remember is a desperate plea for time to stop, for a moment that we survived to do what no other moment in history has ever done: to stay fresh and vivid, not to be relegated to the static pages of a textbook. But there’s nothing we can do about it. We live in linear time, and our current events, even our life-altering, paradigm-shattering ones, become the next generation’s sepia-toned history lessons. Kids are already studying facts about 9/11 for a quiz that will count toward their final average for the marking period.
What is it we want future generations to remember, anyway, and why? The motto of Holocaust remembrance is both “Never forget!” and “Never again!” We can all fight bigotry and hatred within our own communities, and mobilize to stop future genocides anywhere minorities are at risk. But 9/11 offers few obvious lessons for the average person (although people’s courage and compassion in its aftermath certainly do). No public historical memory can prevent another terrorist attack. We have no choice but to leave that work to the professionals in the military, law enforcement, and intelligence services. Maybe the loss is too fresh for us to distill its lessons, or maybe there aren’t any.
Maybe we want them to remember simply because the alternative is unthinkable.
The New York Says Thank You Foundation is a form of living memorial, understandable to all, creating bonds of friendship, compassion and service across the country. The 9/12 Generation Project brings that message to middle- and high-school students. If your school or community 9/11 remembrance is all about lowered flags and burning towers, you might want to check out this alternative now, in plenty of time for next year.