Days of Infamy & Memory as History

Today is filled with people remembering where they were and what they saw on September 11, 2001.  It has been eleven years and this ritual will most likely repeat itself for many more years to come.  There is finally a memorial and a place where the event is commemorated in New York City – the footprints of the two World Trade Center Towers are stunning in their simplicity.

World Trade Center Memorial: the Footprints of Loss

Like every one else who was an adult that day, I can recall every moment of fear and distrust of my own eyes, and I can remember the feeling of surrealness that shrouded that day.  Most of my thoughts, however, were tied up with worry about into what kind of world I would be bringing my newly forming baby.  I had just found out I was pregnant two weeks prior to 9/11 and was still keeping the news close (our first baby had died 2 years earlier – the most difficult event of my life -perhaps I’ll write about that sometime).  But here I was, exchanging cautious joy for determined stamping out of irrational fear because for all I knew, we were about to enter World War III.  It was a scary day for everyone.

My son is now 10 years old.  He has no memories of September 11 and knows only the detachment of stories adults tell him of the Infamous Day.    He attended more anti-war marches than he was years old by the time he was six – his young life was surrounded by war.  His uncle (my little brother) has been serving in one war zone or another since my son was born.  My son has grown up with the worry that his beloved uncle may not come home.  He has never known a world where “terrorism” wasn’t an every day word.  He has had conversations about parts of the world, religions, terrorist attacks and other ideas that I cannot recall even knowing about when I was 10.  Like every American of his generation, his world is colored by an event he never experienced.

He is growing up in a world forever dented by that day.  His every day life is less private – in fact, he will most likely grow up in a world where valuing privacy is a thing of past generations. Even students I had last year, who were 4 and 5 years old on that terrible day, do not have a clear memory of it themselves, only the fear that was beamed down upon them by the adults in their lives.  Some had what I would call incredibly callous school officials who allowed the event to be shown on the school televisions to the very young children who could not possibly understand what was happening.  But event to these young people, that day 11 years ago is stuff of history and myth and legend.  Unless they are exposed to the “as it happened” footage, they often don’t even realize that there were multiple points of attack or the misinformation that swirled around that day–or just the utter shock the entire nation experienced together.

Teaching September 11, 2001 as “history” last year to students who were 15 and 16 years old reminded me of how even our most traumatic experiences eventually retire to the annals of story and history.  It is tempting to demand that everyone remember the awfulness, to keep alive our collective experience of it – to not feel so alone in a world torn apart by the mystifying enemy of “terror.”  And that is what we still do.  Every September 11 is a litany of stories, a list of remembrances, a moment of silence to remember our beloved who perished in a calamity on a scale which we can still barely wrap our minds around.  And that is okay, because for us, it’s not history – it only just happened, it still hurts.

But while we still hurt, our children grow up in the shadow of that hurt.  Today, I am thinking that how we remember our own pain pales in comparison to how we raise our kids in a world now shaped by that very pain.

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