Remembering Pain: 9/11 and Collective Memory

Edited September 11, 2016.

We were fifteen. The colors in the trees reflected summer, not autumn, although the air held a fall crispness. We were at home, which for us who were homeschooled, meant we were at school. We wanted the work to be done so that we could run off to read, or play computer games, or call a friend. Instead we were looking over a math problem.

At that moment, that math problem was the most frustrating thing in the world.

A telephone call interrupted us.

Our mother answered the maroon, cordless phone, and after a moment, turned on the small television set. Our world changed forever.

The sight of the black, acrid smoke streaming from the tower, the silvery way the sun reflected off the windows, the small black dots that startlingly resembled people the closer to the ground they got, the sounds of the birds in the yard…all embedded into our memory.

Why do I say our memory, when it is clearly mine? Because we, as a nation, experienced the events of 9/11 together. Like possibly no other national tragedy, it was collective. It was not over in a moment, like the Kennedy assassination, nor did it take place before live news coverage, such as the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. We watched the whole thing happen, either from the streets of Manhattan, or Washington DC, or the fields of Pennsylvania. We watched as the towers burned, and then collapsed. And our minds were seared with the images of horror and pain, such as we had not witnessed before.

If you are like me, who remembers the day well, it is still hard to think about, let alone watch footage of. It is the definition of a painful memory, and I wasn’t even there for it. Like millions of other Americans, it has shaped my life in a way that no other has. Prior to 9/11, my interest in joining the military was slim. Following the attack, the idea of the military found a new sense of purpose in me. It took me seven years to get there, but the events of that day were on my mind when I swore into the U.S. Army National Guard in 2008.

On September 11, 2011, I stood in a motorpool in Vermont, for a moment of silence with my platoon, before heading out to assist in recovery efforts from Hurricane Irene. By then, I had lost friends to war, and 9/11 somehow took on more meaning.

On September 11, 2013, I stood in a small vigil circle led by the battalion chaplain, two weeks away from boarding a plane to Afghanistan. We were not going there to fight, or build, but to tear down U.S. installations, to bring an end to the twelve year war.

And here it is, 2015, and the war goes on. It is fitting to take the day to remember all that took place that September morning, to remember the pain, to grieve. It is also a time of reflection, as a nation, to look back and see if we are the nation that we wanted to be that day.

It is 2016 now. As I write this, U.S. troops are back in Iraq and Afghanistan is almost old enough to drive, were it a human being. The consequences of that September day live on in the world around us.

For those of us who lived through the events of 9/11, it will forever be day where the emotions of what we saw are felt deeply and personally. The 15th anniversary comes with a shock, as we struggle with how the world has changed since that day. And we struggle with how to tell the story of 9/11, as loaded as it is with emotion, to those who were too young to remember it. Those who are high school students now have no memory of that day.

How do we tell the story of 9/11?

Is it a story of tragedy? Of the unreal feeling of watching the smoke billowing out from the buildings, of the uncertainty of not knowing what was going on, of the horror when the small specks that were human beings joined hands and leaped off the towers to escape burning alive?

Or is it the story of bravery? Of the passengers on Flight 93, the firefighters and first responders who rushed into the burning buildings in New York and Washington, DC on the slim chance that they might save a life?

Or is it the story of what that day brought? The terror alerts, the airport screenings, the wars, the ever-present reminders of danger, the surrender of privacy for the feeling of security?

This is what we must decide. It is up to those of us who lived through that horrific day to tell the full story of 9/11: the tragedy, the heroism, and the consequences. For though it was fifteen years ago, the images still cut us to our core; still evoke tears and heartbreak. The world would never be the same; it is up to us to honor the memory of the victims by living life for them.




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