Commemorating, not Remembering
A guest on NPR's "Science Friday" said the words I realized I'd been waiting to hear for weeks now.
The topic was the "Psychology of 9/11," and when asked about the upcoming 10 year anniversary of the event, she responded that we should respectfully commemorate the event and the lives lost that day. "Respectfully commemorate." That was an idea I had yet to associate with this coming Sunday.
To respectfully commemorate the events of that day would not be to wonder what had happened to us in the past 10 years; or to reflect that America was "forever changed" after that day. "Forever changed"? For who? My father, who remembers the Great Depression and Pearl Harbor? For me, who remembers coming home from elementary school to learn that Kennedy had been shot in Dallas? Who remembers 1968, with the Chicago police riot, the death of RFK and MLK? Who remembers Kent State and Vietnam? I heard college age students on BBC World service describing the shock of learning, 10 years ago, that the world was a dangerous place. It was the same shock I felt that day I walked into the house and my mother told me the President was dead. But do we reflect every 10 years on what has changed since that assassination? Since Pearl Harbor? Since the last helicopter lifted off from Saigon? Since innocent college students were gunned down by reckless National Guardsmen?
It wouldn't be a bad thing to respectfully commemorate those events. Veteran's Day was once Armistice Day, and it was meant to respectfully commemorate the war dead; as was Memorial Day meant to be our Dios de los Muertos, our Samhain. Unfortunately we don't do that very well, so Samhain becomes Hallowe'en, and Memorial Day becomes a three-day weekend for shopping specials. We've never been good at public memorials and commemorations, and we aren't getting any better at it. Today, if we can't wrap it in videos narrated by misty-eyed announcers and news readers and strung together with stirring music, we can't seem to remember at all. Today, if it isn't about us, then what's the point?
I want to remember 9/11, but I can't divorce it from our involvement in Afghanistan before 2001, and our wars there and in Iraq afterward, wars that were directly tied to the horrors of the attacks. Innocent people were killed in America, people who never knew why they were slated to be killed; but innocent people died in Iraq and Afghanistan. At one point Baghdad was so choked with bodies we feared a cholera epidemic. We did that, as a response to the events we want to remember on Sunday. Are we going to think about how we changed Iraq and Afghanistan? Or are we only going to think about how events changed us?
There is an important difference between remembering and commemorating. It is the difference between thinking of yourself as an individual, and thinking of yourself as a part of the whole, as not an island at all. To remember is to think of yourself; to commemorate, is to think of the memories of others, to hold in memory the others and who they were. To remember is to think of who we were; to commemorate, is to think of who they were. To respectfully commemorate, is to honor them.
And that's what we should do; we shouldn't honor us, and our pain, and our loss, and our "change." We should respectfully commemorate them. We should honor the dead, because there are so many of them; because they are so deserving. Because the decent thing to do, the honorable thing to do, is to "co-memorate," to reflect on the corporate memory which honors the dead. Anything less is selfish.