Article — From the August 2011 issue

After 9/11

The limits of remembrance

There is what has to be destroyed and there is what simply has to be clarified and looked at. A benevolent and grave examination—what force! Let’s not bring flame where light is enough.—Victor Hugo, Les Misérables

On September 11, 2011, the tenth anniversary of the attacks that destroyed the twin towers of the World Trade Center, the official memorial will be dedicated at Ground Zero (the opening of the adjacent museum has been delayed and is now scheduled for 2012). Designed by the architect Michael Arad and the landscape architect Peter Walker and called “Reflecting Absence,” the memorial will be about eight acres in size and consist of two sunken reflecting pools, each surrounded by an enormous waterfall, the largest man-made ones in North America, according to the memorial’s official website. The names of the 2,982 people who died on 9/11 and in the failed 1993 attempt to destroy the twin towers will be etched on the bronze panels edging these memorial pools. The closing sentence of the memorial’s mission statement reads: “May the lives remembered, the deeds recognized, and the spirit reawakened be eternal beacons, which reaffirm respect for life, strengthen our resolve to preserve freedom, and inspire an end to hatred, ignorance and intolerance.”

These are unexceptionable sentiments. A memorial is a place, and this will be a time, for solidarity rather than subtlety, deference rather than criticism, and piety rather than revisionism. But in affirming that remembrance is humanly necessary, we must not pretend that it is ever completely innocent, or, to put it more bluntly still, that it has no moral downside. It does, and that downside can be severe. So, in any particular commemoration, one needs to ask what the balance is likely to be between the costs of remembrance and its benefits. Even the prayerful conclusion of the memorial’s mission statement poses more questions than it answers. For although there is nothing morally problematic about remembering the fallen and honoring the heroism of the first responders, the call to “strengthen our resolve to preserve freedom” is anything but an innocent piety. It seems deliberately to echo President George W. Bush’s speech to a joint session of Congress nine days after 9/11, in which he argued that the attacks had occurred because the terrorists “hate our freedoms—our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other.”

Even those who accept Bush’s account, despite its failure to consider the possibility that it was America’s actions rather than the American way of life that the jihadis hated, presumably would grant that the president was making a political claim. The fact that the opening of the 9/11 memorial will mark an event that, to some degree at least, has been seared into the lives and consciousness of most Americans should not obscure the fact that the ghost at the banquet of all public commemoration is always politics—above all, the mobilization of national solidarity. Whether one is talking about Australians and New Zealanders celebrating ANZAC day by honoring their soldiers who died in the First and Second World Wars, the French commemorating the fall of the Bastille on July 14, or our own Fourth of July, the purpose of such ceremonials is what the great nineteenth-century French historian of nationalism Ernest Renan called the creation of “large-scale solidarity.” It is about the reaffirming of group loyalty rather than the establishing of historical accuracy, let alone the presenting of an event in all its moral and political complexity. The ceremonies commemorating the tenth anniversary of 9/11 will take place in this spirit.

It is important not to exaggerate. Whatever meaning history eventually assigns to the attacks of 9/11—and though they are often conflated, history is the antithesis of remembrance—it is highly unlikely that these commemorative events will do any harm to America as a society, even if there is not likely to be very much to learn from it either, any more than there is from eulogies at a funeral. And in an important sense, for the relatives and friends of those who died on that day, remembrance will surely afford some measure of recognition and consolation, though of course not of closure, which is one of the more malign and corrosive psychological fantasies of our age. (The Latin phrase “De mortuis nil nisi bonum,” “Of the dead speak only well,” has often been parodied with the quip, “De mortuis nil nisi bunkum,” but this is wrong. There is nothing admirable about candor during a commemoration, just something childish and conceited.) Remembrance is not valued for shedding much light on the truth in all its nuance and ambiguity. And that is entirely appropriate. The problem is both the degree to which remembrance nourishes illusions about how long human beings can remember and, far more seriously, the potentially grave political and historical consequences it can engender. After all, to remember may not just mean to grieve; it may also mean to harbor a vision of securing justice or vengeance long after it is time to put the guns away.

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is the author of eight books. He is currently writing a book about the global food crisis.

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