Thursday, September 11, 2008

9/11 Revisited: Generations of Forgetting

Yesterday, I had a hard time talking with my English students about the legacy of the September 11 terrorist attacks--although not because of the difficult nature of the subject matter. All but four of them had been in the sixth grade when the attacks occurred. Only a few of them had distinct memories of the day, and fewer still remembered how easy it used to be to board an airplane. 

Sadly, this lack of personal insight into the 9/11 tragedy will become increasingly more common in high school and college freshman classrooms. Seven years ago, the national mantra became "We Shall Never Forget!" In many ways, forgetting has not been an issue for those who witnessed the terrorist attacks in real life or on television. In fact, most people who were old enough to realize what was going on in New York City and Washington seven years ago can tell you where they were and how they felt when they learned of the towers being hit. Such is not the case, though, for the rising generation, who have little or no memory of 9/11/2001. Unfortunately, they will never forget only because they have nothing to forget.

The old cliche is that history repeats itself. In reality, history follows no pre-established pattern.
Rather, generations of human society memorialize, politicize, commercialize, and sanitize the lessons they learn from times of crisis and that the rising generation can either misinterpret them (think Michael Bay's Pearl Harbor) or forget them altogether. 

Once, when I was in elementary school, I watched as a neighborhood girl pretended that a rivet on the inner wall of the school bus was a hidden Soviet camera. She kept yelling, "Dirty Russian! Unlike you, I can BELIEVE IN GOD!!!" I was born in 1980, and while I have this hint of a Cold War memory, I can't say I carry with me any of the important lessons of the Cold War era. My daughters, similarly, were both born after 9/11/2001. They will grow up in a world largely affected by the events of that day, but increasingly ignorant of its lessons. 

So, it is possible to argue that every generation is affected by at least two tragedies: the one it forgets, and the one it experiences because of its forgetfulness. 


  1. It's true. It wasn't until I was writing out my bills and realized that I was writing Sept 11 that I remembered the significance of the day. Look how quickly things change - at that time everyone thought Bush was a hero and were so grateful to have him guide us through those horrible days. Look at what people think of him now. Will history remember the Sept 11 Bush?

  2. What a profound post. There are two tragedies and often we only realize the one that we forget.

    I remember 9/11 and try to help my kids remember it, too. It affects their lives, even if they were too young to understand it at the time.