Memory and our humanity
I began working in New York City in January 2001, teaching courses in English, literature, poetry, and philosophy of education. It was my second academic position after graduate school, and I was delighted to be joining the faculty of a small liberal arts college in the heart of Manhattan.
But, within the year, the entire world was to be shaken by an existential threat previously felt to be a fringe movement. That threat struck the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center, those iconic skyscrapers representing the financial power of the United States.
On a beautiful, crisp Tuesday as we were beginning the fall term, the suicidal attacks of Al-Qaeda brought chaos and destruction to the city where I was working, creating confusion and fear for the residents and commuters (like myself). All of us were desperate to know what was happening. The fall of the World Trade Center towers destroyed cell phone access. The collapse of the buildings killed thousands and left millions cut off from communications. Telephone booths were swamped by citizens desperate to reach their families. Many of us looked to the display windows of electronics stores for news updates, as the big-screen TVs scrolled with devastating images from lower Manhattan.
Never to be forgotten, 9/11 remains a vivid memory for all who lost loved ones or were proximate to the ground zero site in NYC, the Pentagon, or the field in Pennsylvania where United Flight #93 crashed. Yet, for the next generation (many of whom are in our K-12 schools right now), that memory must be passed down and depicted by those who experienced the traumatic event—and the sea-change in American life that followed in its wake.
As with Pearl Harbor or the assassination of JFK for a previous generation, 9/11 remains a milestone of memory that must be maintained and explained, if those who follow are to understand how that event reoriented 21st century society. Today we live with airplane security (think TSA), the Department of Homeland Defense, the War on Terror, etc.—all of which were derived from that momentous attack on a cool September morning in 2001.
Admittedly, it is often difficult to discuss such matters—especially for those wounded by those events—yet, it is through memory that we retain our humanity, for we come to recognize that the activities of individuals, families, communities, and nations are all part of something greater, something intimately bound together. Or, as John Donne so famously put it (in the midst of the devastating London Plague of 1665-1666): “No man is an island…”
Today is an apt moment to reflect upon the events of 9/11, pay our respects to those who were lost, and recognize our common purpose in the propagation of memory: teaching our history, that we might be more fully human.