"We will never forget." That's the phrase used most often in connection with 9/11, isn't it? We will never forget.
That choice of words is not accidental: they’re words that have been used in association with other terrible times. "Remember Pearl Harbor." "Never forget the Holocaust." Even, for those who know their English history, “remember, remember, the fifth of November.” It’s as though we need words to make sure that these horrifying events are inscribed on our brains and in our hearts.
And yet… how could they not be remembered? People use these terrible moments to mark time in their personal lives. We all have some horrible event about which we say, “I remember exactly where I was when I heard that such-and-such happened,” don’t we? I remember being in class when Mother Marie-Christine came in to tell us that Robert Kennedy had been killed in America and to gather us into the chapel for prayer; that moment is frozen in time for me. I can still see the color of the walls, the expression on her face. For each of us, that specific event may be different, but our crisp recollection of it is the same.
And for many of us, that event is 9/11. So why is it that we continue to exhort each other, via social media and bumper stickers and signage, that we must “never forget”?
Many people don't need the exhortation; they live with the memory every day. Almost 3,000 people died on 9/11; a hundred thousand more have filed with the victims' compensation funds for delayed deaths and illnesses, and ten million adults had a friend, family member, or co-worker directly killed in the terrorist attacks. A ripple effect has been felt across the globe. They're not forgetting.
But it seems to me that in keeping up this mantra of "never forget," we’re missing the point in four important ways:
- For many of us, it’s actually anger we’re holding onto when we say we’ll never forget. This tragedy ushered in a whole new age of blind hatred inconsistent with our Christian faith.
- Even as we talk about not forgetting, we really are forgetting: the human species has not shown itself to be outstanding at learning from history and applying those lessons to the life of present and future generations.
- Never forgetting catastrophes is only significant if we balance it with never forgetting joyful events too. Sure, we all remember individual moments—weddings, the birth of children, graduations—but what joyful events do we as a nation exhort each other to remember on the bumpers of our vehicles?
- We ask, “where was God?” when tragedy occurs; but we don’t ask where God is when we’re happy and fulfilled. Then, we’re just fine on our own. If we could keep God in the forefront of our minds and hearts all the time, it would be easier to remember everything that's important, not just one horrible day.
I don’t want to seem callous. I know how many people are still reeling with pain and loss; you may be one of them. The truth is that I too have lost friends and family members to terrorism. I will never forget any of them, and I trust that they are living happily in heaven. But today as we remember 9/11, let’s remember everything: not just the horror, but also the courage. Not just the anger, but also the presence of God in our pain. Let us vow—as do Holocaust survivors—to create a world in which this sort of thing will never again happen.
I’ll end this article with a gift: read Martín Espada’s amazing poem Alabanza: In Praise of Local 100, which movingly and tenderly reminds us of what is behind every tragedy—ordinary human lives. It is a beautiful poem and does better at really remembering than any bumper sticker I’ve ever seen.
by Jeannette de Beauvoir