Spending a relaxing day cleaning the house, grading quizzes, and watching football was a more surreal experience than usual on Sunday, alternating as we were between black-and-white, somber 9/11 Tributes set to somber music and the blaring, hyper-masculine aggression of truck commercials and those goddamn Fox NFL robots with the explosion sound effects. All of the requisite symbolism was covered thoroughly – the flags, the eagles, the Heroes in Uniform, the 9/11 First Responders, and the patriotic songs were all present in spades. It was the climax of a week-long media blitz reminding us to Never Forget. Never Forget. Never Forget.
All that remains, of course, is what exactly we are supposed to be remembering.
We repeat the mistakes of history so regularly not because we forget the past but because we think that remembering it is enough. We don't bother to learn anything from it. Or we learn a lesson that is simply wrong (We lost the Vietnam War because we failed to "stay the course", right?) Or we learn a terribly narrow lesson and use our substantial powers of delusion to convince ourselves that our current situation is unique and we are not in fact repeating the mistakes of the past.
A rite of passage for world leaders, for example, is the pilgrimage to Auschwitz. And people the world over know that the Holocaust is not to be forgotten. But what lesson do the solemn-faced presidents and Popes and prime ministers take away from their tour of the camps? What is it that we Don't Forget about the Holocaust? For most people the lesson of the Holocaust is not to vote for anyone covered in swastikas and wearing a cartoon villain toothbrush mustache. The lesson is that if anyone proposes herding people into cattle cars, trucking them to a rural area, gassing them, and putting them in crematoria, we should do something to stop it. We have learned those rather useless lessons very well. What we haven't learned, of course, is anything about the root causes and warning signs of fascism, the gruesome result of taking socio-political scapegoating and segregation to its logical conclusion, or the consequences of failing to accept our fundamental equality on the most basic human level. We learn that Nazis are evil and go back to railing against the immigrants or the fags or the poor or the dark people or whoever else we see as our social inferiors. It's not just possible to remember something without learning anything from it – it's remarkably easy.
It did not take long for 9/11 to fall into the same stagnant ritual of mindless, uncritical Remembering. What lesson have we learned from it? Have we learned anything at all? For most Americans the lesson has been that Muslims are evil, or terrorists are scary, or that some people want to do us harm because they are jealous of the 1000-channel strip mall paradise in which we live. Some of us cannot even take the line of thought that far, instead remembering that it was really sad when all those people died or that those firefighters sure were brave. Worst of all, in the quest to Remember we watch the same footage repeatedly – the crashing planes, the collapsing towers, the tumbling suicide jumpers – until it isn't shocking anymore. We end up remembering it and being completely desensitized to it.
Perhaps the urgency to have everyone Remember is simply an effort to return the nation to the frightened, fragile, knee-jerk aggression that characterized its collective emotional state for the first several years after the attack. Maybe the point isn't about honoring the memories of the dead at all, but to remind us all about the Other out there and encourage us to lash out at it in our unfocused, wounded rage.
No, we should not forget 9/11. But we might do well to ask ourselves what about it we are supposed to remember and why. For all of the reminders I have seen in the past week, we have been oddly silent on those points.