Here’s the problem with remembering the 9/11 terrorist attacks as the United States is doing today: We’re lying to ourselves. We’re indulging in self-pity and hero-worship. We’re selectively choosing what we want to recall and forgetting important facts such as how the US instigated the attack and remains a nation with its head stuck up its ass.
A decade after Al Qaeda terrorists hijacked four planes and slammed three of them into the Pentagon and World Trade Center, we’ve allowed the anniversary itself to become hijacked by nationalism and selective memory. As David Rieff wrote in Harper’s this month, the anniversary has become “about the reaffirming of group loyalty rather than the establishing of historical accuracy, let alone the presenting of an event in all it moral and political complexity.”
This is somewhat normal: all memory is selective. But look at the degree to which we have cherry-picked 9/11. Hear the repeated references to the supposed Palestinians who “celebrated in the streets” after the attacks, when in fact this was only a small group of stupid kids who were later punished by their government. Listen to how rhetoricians gloss over how the US government used 9/11 to get us into the Iraq war, even when Iraq had absolutely nothing to do with 9/11. Look at the fundamentalists who want to turn this into a Christian event and how they are protesting against Mayor Bloomberg’s decision to keep the anniversary secular. Look at the disgusting pressure of patriotism to wear a flag on your lapel, which is the same patriotism that infringed on social liberties with the so-called Patriot Act that allowed wiretapping of US citizens.
I argue that it is the very lack of religious presence in political and public life, and it is the very protection of seemingly unpatriotic acts such as protesting on the Washington Mall, that makes the United States a symbol of freedom that is repulsive to Al Qaeda.
David Rieff, in the essay “After 9/11: The Limits of Remembrance,” notes the self-serving nature of memory, and the potentially dangerous and deadly use of it when wielded by any group or nation.
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.
…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.
…But remembrance does not just console; it can inflame as well. As a reporter during the Bosnian war, which was in large measure a conflict fueled by memory (or, more precisely, the inability to forget), I learned to hate, but above all to fear, collective historical memory. Remembrance can make history itself seem like nothing so much as an arsenal full of the weapons needed to keep wars going and peace tenuous.