For nearly two decades, my generation has been asked to use our memory of 9/11 as a tool to build our national identity. In a nation increasingly torn apart by anger and mistrust, so rarely willing to deem any experience collective, such a tool is absolutely critical. Yet my memory of that day is a counterfeit. It’s just one still-frame, blurry behind the familiar haze of early childhood, and that has never been sufficient. I am of a narrow and specific cohort of people who have been taught to tell their story as Americans based on a day that we cannot really remember. This alone is not wrong, but we have never been given a clear roadmap for understanding how to do so. Instead, I fear, in many ways we have adopted the memories of an older generation to tell our own story. For something so important, this is not good enough.
I remember sitting on a bare wooden floor, maybe in a living room. The television was on, I was five years old, and my parents were in the next room speaking the garbled language of grown-up secrets. As for the time of day, it would have been any time after 8:46 in the morning, but beyond that it’s hard to say. It falls apart with just a little introspection, though. The living room was in a home I had left months earlier and surely I was in kindergarten on a Tuesday morning. No, I don’t really remember that day.
But I can explain what I remember in a way that makes just enough sense to satisfy the question when it’s asked. And it was always asked. In school, lesson plans invariably included a personal account of the teacher’s that day. My 6th grade social studies teacher was at home, my 8th grade English teacher was at work and my 11th grade history teacher was at the store. Then it would be our turn to share what we remembered six, eight, 11 years earlier. Everywhere else, the question hung unspoken in the air. When parents or elders tried to explain, to give my childhood mind some kind of context, they started with where they were and how they felt. Certainly, the politics surrounding that day and its memory have always been intensely personal as well. No point is proven, no argument made, without the story. Anchors, pundits and politicians pivot to the personal during any conversation in which it might be relevant.
This is because 9/11 sits in limbo between a collective and personal experience. The language and ritual through which we discuss the attack encourages us to consider the how we, personally, went through it. In many ways, it has also shaped some of the most fundamental pillars of our identity as American citizens. Whether we will it or not, that attack will continue to define much of our collective and personal identities well into the future. It will shape the way in which we relate to each other, and the evolution of our national outlook and choices.
The effect on a child growing up in the shadow of the attack was to make one thing clear: it is something that happened to each one of us, personally, and it matters that we remember it that way. So a memory grew to fit the space that expectations left for it. There is no conscious part of me that wants a memory that isn’t mine, but when faced with repeated requests for information, my brain found something that worked. The weight of collective implication triggered something in my mind. It’s based on a handful of likely scenarios and things I heard from others, stitched together into a version of what probably happened.
However it isn’t just the literal recollection of events that makes my memory counterfeit, but everything else that goes into the way we remember that day. Our memory of 9/11 is shaped by every ounce of meaning we pour into it. As an American, I have been taught over the past 16 years to imbue my personal memory of that day with colossal meaning. It has contributed to my sense of belonging to this country, relationship to the world, and my understanding of elemental experiences like terror and courage. Put simply, for my entire conscious life, it has always been there, and always been hugely important. But without a pre-existing sense of self, I had no context for experiencing something so fundamental. For those older than me, throughout that day and in the years that followed, memories formed that combined events with self-created meaning. These, I think, are crucial to the development of a fully formed, truly personal understanding of 9/11. For me, though, both have come largely from outside input.
I reached for narrative from family, media, pop culture, and every other other source of meaning that was available. The result was shallow and insincere. It was based on a trauma I did not experience, because the world 9/11 disrupted is not one I’ve ever known. For those that did, that disruption will always be central to the way the attack is remembered — in addition to tragedy, it was disruption, chaos and change. But for me, such a narrative makes very little sense. In many ways, 9/11 was day one for my generation of Americans, and our memory needs to match that fact.
My life has been spent tracing the scars of a day I don’t remember. They’re etched in the hearts of every adult I know, and in the politics of the society in which I’ve come of age. Therefore, if I am to think of 9/11 as something that happened to me, personally, then I have to play the tape in reverse. For me it’s grade-school moments of silence, annual goosebumps, semi-annual tears, and unrivaled patriotic compassion. It’s meant a sense of duty and belonging that I find unique and indispensable. It’s also, at times, been a frightening rallying cry for jingoism and hate. It’s a war whose start I can’t remember, and bin Laden’s assassination, the announcement of which I’ll never forget. So, as a generation, we have to be willing to remember 9/11 in a way that reconciles the totality of our personal experience. For us, it cannot be a single event, set aside from the rest of history, but one long, ongoing memory, played in reverse again and again.
Rubin Danberg Biggs is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected]. The Common Table appears alternate Fridays this semester.