The loss of the Twin Towers represents more than even the loss of nearly 3,000 lives. Ground Zero’s gaping hole five years later represents the destruction of one of New York’s most endearing landmarks, the triumph of terrorism in the lives and jargon of America, and the waiting for the Freedom Tower that will fill the expansive vacancy its predecessor left. It is the manifestation of death and destruction, a cruel image evoking feelings of fear and reminiscent paranoia; the kind this country has lost over the last five years.
The events that unraveled five long years ago seem to be the product of, not the inspiration for, a movie set. Even today it seems strange that a host of movies have come out depicting the day’s events. Is it still too soon, too hard to remember so vividly and illustriously?
Sept. 11 is no longer just a date in history; it is a moniker synonymous with sacredness and American tragedy. Five years ago, nationalistic pride engulfed our airwaves and Americans began, for the first time in many generations, to fully and proudly embrace their Americanism.
We wore it on our sleeves, our hats, and even our cars. We became one country, indivisible and united against a common enemy. The liberal versus conservative divide leftover from the 2000 presidential election subsided, and a love for freedom and triumph took over, almost instinctively.
And then, something changed.
They say that time heals all wounds. Time certainly did something to our nation and our nationalism over the last five years.
Maybe it was the feeling of deception that so many Americans felt after worldwide intelligence seemed to get it wrong about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. Maybe it was the decision to invade Iraq. Maybe it was the media outlets that strung together conspiracy theories a la Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 911.
Whatever it was, it damaged our unity. It was no longer us against the enemy. We became introspective and self-doubting. Things weren’t so black and white anymore.
This gets me, and probably a whole lot of other people, thinking about the use of memory. I have, thus far, insinuated that we lost something good, something empowering over the last five years.
Maybe it’s just the opposite.
Is memory, as T.S. Eliot explains, the avenue to liberation from “that action of little importance”? Is that time between now and the moment in question a necessary entity to gain understanding through reflection or is our most immediate reaction our truest?
Is how we retell the story today surer and truer than our experience five years ago?
It’s a question I’ve struggled with for the last several years.
If we were to get hit again with a similar attack, perhaps even a larger one, how would we react? Having experienced the nation’s most devastating unnatural disaster just five years ago, are we naive enough today to think that our reaction to a new disaster would be any more measured or that we are any more prepared today than we were five years ago?
The reconsideration of the events surrounding 9-11 suggests that we Americans have grown up. Like last century’s predecessors that lived and worked in a post-Marx, post-Darwin, post-Freud era, we feel educated and enlightened in a new, better form than our past selves.
When we tell yesterday’s story today, we may tell it fearlessly and emotionlessly. We may be liberated of the stress caused by our surroundings, by the falling bodies and the jarring images that plagued our airwaves.
The recounting experienced by watching video, movies, or reading books on Sept. 11 brings us back into the moment, replacing memory with images of concrete reality. This is the kind of recounting that excites fear, anger, or hatred out of millions of Americans. It brings us back to that moment of uncertainty, of unreason and hysteria. It relives the moment, pushing aside the memory.
So what is to be done? Are we to watch the Passion of the Christ every night as to remember Jesus’ sacrifice? Are we to watch videotapes of the planes flying into the Twin Towers so that we hold on to that hysteria?
Is it shameful that we Americans took our flags off of our cars and that President George W. Bush’s approval rating is no longer hovering around 90 percent?
Our opinions now, educated or not, are surely truer to ourselves than they were five years past. The problem that plagues much of America is not a lack of awareness, but a poorly developed memory.
Retell the story. Make it one’s own. Give the moment in time an accent and a name. We do that much for every story we tell, every moment we remember.
Embrace Sept. 11 and remember the moment and its timeless heroes.