The Middletown Press (Middletown, CT)
I teach history. We haven’t learned from 9/11
The collective gasp came when United Airlines Flight 175 blew through Tower Two of the World Trade Center. Everyone glued to the television set knew instantly that terrorism and fear had come to American shores. Everything changed. The buoyant optimism of the late 1990s and of the new 21st century ended with the lives of the 2,996 people lost on that iridescently blue-skied morning.
Now, 20 years later, how should we think about that day? The very idea that two decades have passed seems painfully impossible. Those old enough to have witnessed the tragedy will never forget. My students at Central Connecticut State University have interviewed hundreds of people over the years, all of whom remember exactly where they were and how they felt that day and over the weeks, months and years that followed. There is always sadness, hurt and confusion.
The short films students create from the interviews are one way of connecting a generation that is too young to remember 9/11 with those who were forever changed by it. Another way to touch that past is by traveling into New York City to visit the National September 11 Memorial & Museum. It’s a highlight of learning about 9/11, to relate all that we’ve read and discussed with the physical place many still call Ground Zero.
There remains a rawness to all of this history, one that my students can only partially understand. This is the inevitable fade of time. We promise to “never forget,” but it’s difficult, nearly impossible, for one generation to feel another’s experience. In recent years, some Connecticut schools have stopped commemorating Sept. 11 because today’s students were born well after and have no memory of that day.
What most young Americans don’t fully appreciate is that, memory or not, the nation and world in which they’ve grown up have been irrevocably shaped by 9/11. Even many of the adults who do remember don’t fully appreciate the magnitude of how 9/11 has changed America. They instead focus on what I call the “tragedy and triumph” narrative; that a great tragedy befell the United States, but, like after Pearl Harbor, Americans rose to the challenge and, as FDR said in 1941, strode forward in our “righteous might.”
But the awful reality is that we didn’t. The War on Terror inaugurated by 9/11 has gone terribly. We sent our soldiers off to Afghanistan and Iraq with little more than a “thank you for your service.” The line among many in the military is “we went to war while America went to the mall.” At home, we are more divided than at any time since the American Civil War. We no longer agree on basic facts and therefore can’t begin to contemplate the truth.
And now, as we ponder the meaning of 9/11, we are again witnessing tragedy, this time in the fall of Afghanistan. America has lost another war. The saddest part is not that it casts a shadow on the 20th anniversary of Sept. 11, but that it shines a glaring light on the failure of our foreign policy, of our understanding of history (yes, this is another Vietnam), and of our sullied reputation around the world.
None of this should cause Americans to forget those lost on that tragic Tuesday morning, but we can’t isolate the memory of 9/11 from the larger issues that led to it and have followed. Until we face that truth, we will never really move forward.
So, on this day, remember the tragedy that befell our nation, respect those in uniform who serve our nation, but reflect on the fact that as citizens of a democratic nation we all bear responsibility for what the U.S. government does in our name.