As we mark the 22nd anniversary of the September 11th attacks, the phrase Never Forget is still etched into our collective memory. Yet, as time has marched on, 9/11 is retreating into the annals of history much like December 7th, when the Pearl Harbor attacks occurred.
I’ve read that national holidays are a way of declaring that an event should remain historically relevant, and when we lose our connection to the relevance of that event, the shared meaning, and thereby commemorative intention, fades. And today, I wonder if the global pandemic and the systemic social issues it spotlighted pushed 9/11 into the background or if it is that the “war on terror” has become a pervasive “us versus them” theme and overshadowed the individual narratives that united us then in our shared humanity.
Most of us old enough to recall 9/11 can still vividly recount where we were and what we were doing when the first plane hit the Twin Towers, especially those of us who experienced the attacks firsthand. Yet, a growing number of people were too young or not yet born – and have no personal memories of that day.
I was surprised to learn that only a fraction of states require teaching the events of September 11, 2001. Knowing it’s not a mandatory part of the curriculum, I find it easier to grasp why schools grappling with the lingering effects of the pandemic on academic performance, social media, fear of gun violence, climate change, gender issues, and more, set 9/11 to the sidelines. And, as I consider geo-political challenges over the past 22 years, the war in Ukraine and recent extreme climate events, I also appreciate that for many navigating the complexities of daily life, the 9/11 terrorist attacks have become a footnote in history.
However, for a brief moment, for most everyone in the US – and for many across the globe – 9/11 transcended age, gender, geography and, yes, political affiliation. As the nation experienced collective anguish on September 11th, the months that followed were characterized by a spirit of unity during which political differences were set aside. Fifteen years later, a 2016 Pew Research Center study noted that while Democrats and Republicans agreed on little else during that election cycle, more than 70% of partisans named the attacks as one of their top 10 historic events.
Yet, memory is a delicate construct intertwined with forgetting. Our brains prioritize some memories over others, encoding and consolidating those assigned as worthy of preserving. Significantly, personal narratives shape our memories, and as time passes new memories replace old ones, interfering with our recollection of events.
So today, as we remember and reflect on September 11th, I find it crucial to recognize that the world has moved forward and acknowledge that the memory of that day is evolving. While it may be fading from the forefront of our collective consciousness, becoming a historical event for many, for some of us, 9/11 remains an indelible chapter in our lives – one that reshaped our perceptions of war, peace, safety, unity, and the human spirit.
In a world grappling with new challenges and evolving priorities, the memory of 9/11 serves as a reminder of how historical events, even while fading, continue to shape shared meaning. It prompts us to consider how we can keep these memories alive and relevant for future generations, ensuring that the lessons learned from that fateful day act as a bridge connecting us with a more peaceful and unified world.
For those who’d like to learn more, here are my reflections on the individual narratives that shaped September 11th on the tenth anniversary.