September 13, 2023

BEARD | 9/11 and the Obligation of Memory

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Monday Sept. 11 marks the 22nd anniversary of the brutal terrorist attacks of 9/11. 22 years is about as old as I am, and years beyond the newest Cornellians in the class of 2027. Yet, despite the march of time, the annual ritual begins anew every September 11th. The social media posts go-up, and come September 12th, we move on with our lives.

Over the course of my lifetime, this ritualized act of remembrance has increasingly become more confined to “feeds” of the various online spaces we inhabit. This year, our memory of 9/11 ran the gambit of Instagram graphics emblazoned with various hashtag equivalents of “Lest We Forget” to students cracking insensitive jokes of “happy 9/11.” Regardless of perverse social media style, there is the commonality of our persistence in remembrance. At the same time, however, why remember at all if memory itself consists of hollow hashtags and “memes.”’ As the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan born of that September morning 22 years ago come to the close, and generations of students enter adulthood increasingly ignorant of 9/11’s consequences, we find our institutions clinging to a faded national memory while it seems that my generation desperately tries to move on. Somewhere along the line and caught between these conflicting perspectives, our memory of 9/11’s true significance became a victim. 

Despite what the clock that pushes each of us closer to graduation may say, time as it pertains to history is not linear. As is the case with 9/11, events of the past become etched in our memory and recur with disregard for the shackles of time. Just a few years ago, Cornell unveiled a memorial to 21 of our University’s alumni who perished in the towers in 2001. Looking at that marble plaque last year, I was struck by the permanence with which each of those names exists, the strength of the voices with which they call out to you here in the present. The names of those 21 Cornellians and their graduation years reach through the years and very quickly dispel any notion that 9/11 exists in the past. 

Far from linear, the past and its memory is also living, forever shaping those who live with it. I spoke the other day with a local about the upcoming anniversary. He told me a story of a dear friend of his who died that day: Unlike the planes destined for the towers and the Pentagon, his friend was on flight 93 and heroically helped to take down the hijackers, preventing further deaths in the process. What struck me the most about his story, however, was that this man could, down to the letter, remember the last words of the phone call the friend made to his family from the doomed plane. 22 years after the tragedy and those words speak to him as if his friend was alive and saying them into his own ear now. For so many, 9/11 doesn’t start on Sept. 11 and end Sept. 12, its memory walks beside them everyday.

To truly engage in remembrance we must step away from our rituals and screens and recognize the potency of memory. History is a discombobulated mess that no amount of time can prevent from rearing its head in the present. The thousands of Americans tragically killed on Sept. 11th, 2001, the hundreds of thousands of civilians killed in Afghanistan, the further thousands of disabled American service-members, and the hundreds of first responders suffering through the medical conditions caused by 9/11, are all vignettes which showcase how this one day in 2001 defined and continues to define our country in the modern era. In recognizing the effects of 9/11, we must also recognize that remembrance cannot be left up to social media accounts or simply honoring the fallen. In order to truly be responsive to those voices which call to us from the past, we must be attentive to the obligation that comes with memory. 

In memorializing 9/11, we are also accepting responsibility. As it should be with all history, remembering 9/11 is about overcoming our present ignorance while also critically analyzing our past to inform the future.

Contemporarily, our jokes, politics and social media-like tendencies toward 9/11 diminish its significance as an overly patriotic “remember the alamo” type battle-cry and distort the humanity of the anniversary. Rather than engaging in this style of pseudo-remembrance, we must instead engage with the voices of those who lost their lives. Tell their stories and retell their stories. Rather than posting a thumbnail image on your feed, we must instead support platforms in which individual sacrifice can be discussed and honored. Humanity is far more important than consumer-ized nationalism and corporate virtue-signaling.

We must also not forget the actions our nation took in the wake of the terrorist attacks; the wars we fought and the human costs our country and others endured. For these reasons, we should always be attentive to those who use their supposed support of victims and heroes to push political agendas that result in conflict and more lives lost. Looking towards the future, it is the obligation of the living to shoulder the responsibility of caring for those still affected by 9/11 and our forever wars in the Middle East and take every action to ensure our posterity won’t have to deal with these same costs. Memory must always guide us on a path towards the future.

Like it or not, the past is always alive and well in the present. 9/11/2001 is a day whose tragedies can be felt just as strongly today, 22 years later. You may not see the costs as clearly in the present, but we get to choose whether or not we’re ignorant. Despite our impulse to post and hashtag, remembrance can’t be done half-heartedly or with the touch of a button. To truly do memory justice, we must be stewards of the past, mindful in the present and constantly preparing for a better future.

Brenner Beard is a fourth year student in the College of Arts & Sciences. His fortnightly column Agree to Disagree is a collection of musings and opinions on campus and the Cornell community at large. He can be reached at [email protected].

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