Never Forget, Even If You Can’t Remember

An American flag in the plaque of names on the edge of the South Pool of the 9/11 Memorial in Manhattan, September 9, 2014. (Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)

9/11 is at once history mentioned in our textbooks and a horror that we lived through.




NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE

A
s you read this today, I’ll be at my alma mater in Ithaca, N.Y., helping the Cornell College Republicans and Democrats plant 2,977 flags in memory of the innocent lives lost on September 11, 2001. It will be the first time that we take on this particular task — in past years we’ve used far fewer flags — but it will be just the next incarnation of a long tradition of honoring the dead and giving back to those who rose to the occasion in the aftermath of the attacks by raising money for their local Veterans of Foreign Wars chapter.

For the Republicans, this has long been a meaningful event. Two years ago, we invited the Democrats to join us, and they gladly accepted. For all four of my years in Ithaca, I helped staff the table where we accepted donations on the main campus quad. The university, despite its surplus of students from the New York City area, does very little to recognize the date’s significance. No university-sponsored events, no moment of silence, nothing. So our little tribute constitutes the only indication that there’s anything unusual about this day.

By my senior fall, it didn’t feel like just another thing we did as an organization, but a duty, a responsibility we had to our classmates. Because as much as it means to the people who work on the event, it means so much more to the students who lost someone on 9/11. Year in and year out, they would approach the table to thank us — often tearfully — mentioning that their father or mother had perished in the attacks. I never knew quite what to say and would usually offer my condolences and a platitude, saving my own tears for later. They were always so genuinely grateful that someone on campus was doing something to remember their loved ones, but I always felt that our efforts were entirely inadequate in those moments.

I was just barely three years old when it happened — my parents tell me that they picked me up from preschool less than an hour after I was dropped off. Some people my age seem to remember the day well, but I have no recollection of it. I also have no memory of a time when I was unaware of that day’s events, however, and I think that’s probably true of almost everyone my age. We may have been too young to react viscerally at the time, but it was nevertheless a defining moment in our lives.

Our childhoods were shaped by September 11, 2001. The wars our country fought in its aftermath sent many of our loved ones far, far away and dominated discussion at the dinner table and on the cable-news shows our parents watched. (We were too young to remember the unifying spirit in the immediate aftermath but plenty old enough to remember the divisiveness of the intermediate aftermath.) It made Islamic terrorists the pop-culture villains of choice that the Soviet Union had once been. It even inspired a whole subgenre of music, ranging from the vengeful (“Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue,” “Have You Forgotten?”) to the wistful (“Where Were You When the World Stopped Turning?”), and it gave a new life to classics such as Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the U.S.A.”

My generation is now in an awkward spot. 9/11 is at once history mentioned in our textbooks and a horror that we lived through. We couldn’t express our patriotism by joining the military or donating or volunteering. We couldn’t even carry out our commander in chief’s order to go shopping. Consequently, we are left to wonder what our role is in all of this.

Last year, many freshmen entering college were not yet alive on 9/11. This year, most probably weren’t. The administration at Cornell University has already deemed 9/11 unworthy of being so much as mentioned. Their only acknowledgement of it came in the form of a kindly photographer they sent to our own tribute to gather homepage fodder. I worry that, as fewer and fewer students on campus feel their lives to be intertwined with 9/11, the date will become less and less important. That would be the natural way of things, but that doesn’t make it any less lamentable. I don’t worry that the Republicans and Democrats will stop their memorial — they won’t — but that it will become an idle chore instead of the responsibility I came to see it as. Soon, no one will approach the donation table tearfully. It will save the volunteers considerable heartbreak, but it will deprive them of it, too.

It is my cohort’s charge, then, to serve as a bridge between our elders — those who do remember where they were when the world stopped turning — and our younger brothers, sisters, friends, mentees, and, eventually, children, with no solid memory of it or its aftermath. We can never quite understand what our parents felt on 9/11, but we do know what it taught us: the fragility of our own lives and way of life, that freedom is not free, that our neighbors may very well be heroes-in-waiting. It is our obligation not only to impress upon our younger peers the significance and lessons of 9/11, but to impress upon them their own responsibility to pass on those lessons to people even further removed from it than themselves.

We can never allow ourselves to forget, even if we can’t remember.