If we continue to let 9/11 haunt America’s collective memory, and thus define its sense of purpose and orientation to the world, we should expect the next ten years to resemble the last. That may be the lesson of one of the better reflections on the 9/11 commemorations by David Rieff (for some time out on newsstands, it has today been made available online). In the cover story of Harper’s August issue, Rieff considers the impact of eulogizing the 2001 attacks, drawing a distinction between the history books and popular commemoration. The public eulogies at Ground Zero may seem to do little harm on the surface, but they don’t provide “closure” or help cede impassioned memories to a more dispassionate and less dangerous chronicling of history:
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. … 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.
In a New World that worships progress and the new, the past ten years have shown that in commemorating those lost on 9/11, we seek a kind of permanent order–but perhaps not one that is healthy, especially when it requires avenging the deaths in an endless War on Terror. But though “the past nine commemorations of the attacks suggest a belief that what seems central to us today will continue to be at least as important to our descendants long after those of us who lived through 9/11 are dust,” we need not be too worried. History is itself evidence of the fleeting nature of individual memory, even if acknowledging that we will one day forget is painful.
The stark reality is that in the very long run nothing will be remembered. This may be an unpalatable truth, but it still needs acknowledging. This is not to say that on the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks—which, after all, will be one of the historical high-water marks in the remembrance of the event—those who participate should forswear entirely the comforting illusion that we will always remember those who died. The alternative, which would be to state that sooner or later our descendants will forget about 9/11, just as we have largely forgotten about horrific events of the past, would be as unbearable as knowing well in advance the date of your own death.
Rieff suggests that though it can be tough to forget, ending our grieving requires a kind of death, or perhaps rebirth.
[W]e would do well to consider the possibility that if our societies were to expend even a fraction of the energy on forgetting that we now do on remembering, and if the option of forgetting were seen as at least as available as the duty of remembrance, then the peace that must come eventually might actually come sooner. It is an austere creed. The great South African author Nadine Gordimer once said that she thought writers should write as if they were already dead. To ask people to forgo remembrance, or at least to envisage that possibility, is in effect to ask people to act as if they were already dead. Will it ever be possible for us to give up the memory of our wounds? We had better hope so, for all our sakes. And after the commemoration ceremonies are over would be a good time to begin.