On the 18th Anniversary of 9/11: A Problem & Question of Remembrance

Subtitle: An Answer to My Own Question (including a reflection on Matthew 18.23-34)

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What have I learned and remember from September 11, 2001? I pray (though not deeming to apply my personal learning to geopolitical relations) that I know something more about forgiving.

Forgiving does not mean forgetting. For who can erase from memory a grievous wrong? Nor does forgiving mean foregoing the hard work (once harm has been done) of discerning the rules (new or, if old, then renewed) of accountability and responsibility in our relationships.

Rather, forgiving, through the lens of remembrance, sees the wrong, then, in enlightened self-interest (knowing the corrosive power of bitterness, knowing that in holding fast to resentment there is no possibility of peace with another or one’s self), chooses to forsake the immediate, natural necessity of vengeance and the more long-lived, potentially life-long festering growth of prejudice.

Jesus told a parable of a king who remembered that he was owed an unpayable, unpardonable debt. He confronted the offender with a mind to punish, yet, too, with a heart to hear a plea for clemency. The king forgave the debtor, who, failing to follow the example he had been shown, choosing not to forgive one who was in his debt, soon discovered the disastrous consequences of his absence of mercy.

Parable of the Unmerciful Servant, Claude Vignon (1593-1670)

When I remember harm done unto me, I, these days, also recall my need to forgive. And when I forgive, it is hardly feeble sentimentality, but rather an act of boldest mercy toward another and truest kindness to myself.

This said, forgiveness always is easier for me to contemplate and harder for me to demonstrate, especially when I remember harm done unto me. Nevertheless, September 11, 2001 has taught me not (never!) to deem forgiveness unthinkable. For the health of the soul (and, here, I do apply my personal learning to geopolitical relations) of the nation is at stake.

September 11, 2001, as generational mega-event of horrific proportions, unleashed (and, if not the source, then abetted) two powerful and contradictory extremes of human reaction to terror. One, blinding fear and burning anger that demonizes “the other” as inhuman and justifies retaliation without measure. Two, a flaccid romanticism that idealizes a universal humanity and, thus, forsakes the essential and rigorous effort of acknowledging undeniable cultural, ethnic and racial, and religious differences that divide humanity.

Through the lens of remembrance, dare we, repenting of each and both, forgive ourselves. In that forgiveness, may we, with unblinking honesty, affirm that we live in an always dangerous world. In this recognition, nonetheless, may we, with hearts of hope, strive to understand “the other,” and, with those same open eyes and open hearts, unfold our arms, unclench our fists, and open our hands to all others.

 

Illustration: Parable of the Unmerciful Servant, Claude Vignon (1593-1670)

4 thoughts on “On the 18th Anniversary of 9/11: A Problem & Question of Remembrance

  1. Dear Paul,

    I appreciate the question “What have we learned?” I also appreciate your suggestion of an answer from your own experience and wisdom. And I appreciate the focus on forgiveness, particularly your words on what forgiveness can accomplish and what it requires of us. I used to think I understood what it meant to forgive; the older I get the murkier the concept of forgiveness becomes to me.

    With particular regard to the events of 9/11/2001, I find myself confronting the words I have heard often associated with it: “We will never forget.” I am always confused by those words, and perhaps because the words on a page cannot convey what the speaker/writer means by them. I think this is a saying that requires tone and voice for meaning: Said one way, “we will never forget” is a guarantee of ongoing hatred, anger, and a commitment to vengeance. Said another, “we will never forget” can mean that we have internalized the events, their enormous magnitude and consequence, and we have determined to allow everything about them to educate and edify our intellects and our souls, so that we might do everything we can to avoid repetitions and reverberations of such violence and destruction in the future. The complicating thing is that I’m afraid many of us think that memories of 9/11 mean the same thing to all Americans, which is far from the truth. There are so many threads of meaning that flow from that day. perhaps as many threads as there are people who recall it.

    I think this is a hard day for just about everyone. And this year I think it’s particularly hard, because our nation is so terribly divided. It would be comforting to think that there is one common experience of grief that affects everyone who remembers that day, but I think even grief is tinged with one’s own personal grasp on those events, their cause, their aftermath, their meaning for humanity, their meaning for each person based on their own experiences of terrible loss.

    Thank you for providing an opportunity to think about these things, Paul. You are courageous to address it and to invite others to contemplate with you what we do, what we build or fail to build, with our memories of that day.

    Love,

    Karen

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  2. THANKS Paul for the question and your answer. 9/11 is a REALLY hard day. I’m still pondering the question to some degree… as you know I lost a very good security colleague, mentor and friend on that day in the towers. So the first thing I thought about was Forgiveness, which you covered so well in your answer.

    I had to go through the process of grieving and forgiving at the same time and for me that was hard. And I’m still not sure what we learned from it, which seems odd because I have read at least three books about it and I have to teach it in my security classes.

    The one thing I know for sure is that even after all these years the day really gets to me…. always will cause me to feel and be out of sorts!! I purposely waited until today to write about it …. can never seem to find the right words to talk about this event and that day.

    Much love,

    Loretta

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  3. First and foremost, my dearest Karen and Loretta, always my thanks to you, each and both, for reading and reflecting on what I write and share, and then commenting – and always with your ever-so-deep-and-challenging ruminations.

    Karen, precisely, I think…I feel, for the reason you elucidate – that is, wonderment about what folk mean when they say/write, “We will never forget” – that I pondered (and continue to ponder) and proposed the question: What have we learned. For, as I wrote, “For the purpose of remembrance, particularly public commemoration, is to draw us together in solidarity. In this, I think, is a problem of remembrance. For in the renewal of (especially, national) unity, we can be tempted to forego the necessary historical and ethical work of asking what have we learned?”

    As you determine – and I agree – what an individual means when writing/saying, “We will never forget,” is in the mind and heart of the writer/speaker. As I have reviewed and reflected on various comments of various folk employing that phrase, I also agree that, in the main, we humans fall into the two large categories of meaning that you, Karen, highlight. That is, expressing an “ongoing hatred, anger, and a commitment to vengeance” and “hav(ing) internalized the events, their enormous magnitude and consequence, and…hav(ing) determined to allow everything about them to educate and edify our intellects and our souls, so that we might do everything we can to avoid repetitions and reverberations of such violence and destruction in the future.” I also agree with you that “(t)he complicating thing is that I’m afraid many of us think that memories of 9/11 mean the same thing to all Americans, which is far from the truth.”

    Here’s my resident fear… That we, Americans, will go along with whatever our leadership does in response to discerning our national place in the world; a world where terror, now, is commonplace. And, for me, whether it is the present occupant of the White House, about whom I harbor grave questions of the depth of discernment and the degree of the equilibrium of impulse control (among other concerns) or any before or after, I think and feel that none of us can be sanguine that “all is well and in control,” for, I also believe (and, this, without posing or proposing to be a doomsayer) all is not well, much less, in control.

    And, for me, at the beginning and through the middle and at the end of the proverbial day, aye, my life, I also believe that these are the times (are not they all?) that demand individual intellectual, emotional, and moral rigor to wrestle daily with these sorts of questions. Not only “what have we/I learned?,” but also “what will we/I do?” Hate? Love? In the words of Joshua, “for me and my house, we will serve the Lord,” which, for me, means loving “the other,” even if it kills me.

    Loretta, not once, as I thought and wrote, did I not remember that you – and many I know – suffered the loss of the lives of fellow workers, family, friends, and loved ones on that dreadful Tuesday, September 11, 2001. Hence, I did not pose or wrestle with my own question from an emotionally detached, wholly intellectual ivory-tower distance (though, I also confess, that there are agonizing times that I wish I, simply, profoundly, could not feel!). Thus, for me, your reactions to 9/11 – “…(being) still not sure what we learned from it…(yet) The one thing I know for sure is that even after all these years the day really gets to me…always will cause me to feel and be out of sorts!!” – are painstakingly raw and real.

    Karen and Loretta, for all these reasons and more than I can enumerate, this is why I consider 9/11 a generational mega-event – on par with Pearl Harbor (though before my time, it was part and parcel of my father’s reminiscences, which he shared at some length and impassioned volume) and the assassinations of JFK and MLK – thus, a historical occurrence that marks (and, in some ways known and yet to be discerned) and mars our human experience of what it means to live, to exist…

    And, having come to this realization for myself, again, at the beginning through the middle and at the end of the proverbial day, I, for one, choose to struggle with its meaning AND my meaning amidst the turmoil that 9/11 is and represents. For an alternative, it seems to me, is to forget it and to remember it only when, annually, September 11 rolls around, saying, “We will never forget,” and the employ of that platitude being an expression only of my rest-of-the-year amnesia. No. I can’t, I won’t do that.

    With love beyond the telling,
    Paul

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  4. Thank you, Paul, for your further thoughts on 9/11 in the context of Loretta’s and my comments. I find them deeply loving, profound, and comforting, despite your candid unwillingness to mitigate hard truths in a clear-eyed vision of the depths pain and the horror surrounding that day, its aftermath, and our current national circumstances. That you speak the truth and that you still aver, with Joshua, that you and your house will serve the Lord and mean by that that you will never stop loving the other, bolsters and undergirds for me the bedrock of my hope for humanity. For that and for all such unshakable, faithful conviction and those who carry it, I am tremendously grateful.

    Much love,

    Karen

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