By David K. Shipler
I recently asked a class of undergraduate journalism students what they remembered about September 11, 2001, since most of them were only eight or nine at the time.
Nobody chose to answer except one young woman, who said that she remembered her parents’ reactions. She did not elaborate, but it seemed that what stayed with her, more than the scenes from lower Manhattan, were the faces and voices of her mother and father.
Inevitably, as generation supersedes generation, that clear and terrible morning will be interpreted through the country’s reactions.
Memories are bound to dissolve and refocus on the aftermath, just as Pearl Harbor is now recalled as the opening of a dreadful but noble war, a victorious heroism.
The most vivid recollections of 9/11 may not be so uplifting—not the moment of pained unity that followed and then evaporated, not the ubiquitous flag as it stood for all Americans before it was again repossessed by the angry right. The eventual legacy is likely to be conveyed by the lasting absences from families of those who fell in Iraq and Afghanistan, by the erosion of constitutional rights in the name of security, and by the long current of fear that has now lasted more than a decade.
These were my thoughts during a visit to the 9/11 Memorial at Ground Zero. Like the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, this monument of honor does not tell you how to think or what to feel. It allows space for all the complexity of grief and regret and yearning that the event itself provokes, in different measures for every visitor. It does not trap you in the past, in the hours of that Tuesday, but carries you into the present and invites contemplation on what is to come.
Down the sheer walls of two huge squares in the ground, dug into the sites of the two towers’ foundations, thin streams of water fall vertically thirty feet, gracefully into a pool, which ripples and shimmers and spills into a large but smaller black square in the center. It seems bottomless because the talented Israeli architect Michael Arad, whom I met in Israel when he was a boy, designed the bottom to be out of sight, and so it creates the impression of an endless abyss. Like our strength, our stature, our life, the water disappears into the void. Yet it is always replenished.
Are we disappearing into the void? Are we always replenished? It could be that the cynical resentment, the brutally coarse hatred aimed at those who disagree, the base rhetoric that feeds political blame, all come in some way from that September morning. Perhaps something cracked and has not been repaired. Perhaps we lost faith in ourselves. Perhaps we learned helplessness, so we are thrashing around darkly in search of steadiness. This may be what gets remembered generations hence.
The names of the dead are engraved around the pools—not the names of the 19 hijackers, of course, and not the names of the Iraqis and Afghans who have also perished. And not the names Tolerance and Liberty, which are far from dead but are in need of care.
We have the capacity to revise the legacy and rewrite the memories. It has not taken 9/11 to teach us to question how closely the flickering images we see represent reality. “Behold, human beings living in an underground den,” Plato wrote in the Republic. “Here they have been from their childhood, and have their legs and necks chained so that they cannot move . . . and they see only their own shadows, or the shadows of one another, which the fire throws on the opposite wall of the cave. . . . To them, the truth would be literally nothing but the shadows of the images.”