I’m just old enough to remember September 11, 2001.
I was an eight-year-old third-grader that day. During morning prayers at my Catholic grade school, my teacher simply told us to “pray for everybody in New York.” My classmates and I didn’t know what this meant. Unlike older students, who immediately learned the brutal reality of what was currently unfolding in New York, D.C., and Shanksville, PA, I didn’t learn it until I got home. I remember weird things about that day: the math problem I worked on after school with a friend; who the friend was; what the weather was like. Little things.
As an eight-year-old, I could barely process the utter catastrophe of 9/11; I ran inside the day after when I saw a plane flying over my house. But I do remember a great sense of sadness and loss. Though I lacked the direct, visceral connection to the destruction felt by many in the Northeast, I knew something bad had happened. And I hoped it would never happen again.
I grew up on news cycles of city residents covered in dust and desperate souls leaping to their deaths; of firefighters, police officers, and the self-made heroes of the hour saving as many as possible, and then returning to save more. Of President George W. Bush telling the world that we can hear you, and throwing that first pitch. Of American tanks rolling into distant desert lands, whose names I learned when we invaded them. These are all things I remember, not from archival footage or history books, but as they happened, even if my understanding of them wasn’t clear then.
But today is the day after September 11. It is the fifteenth anniversary of that day-after, but, in a sense, it is still the day after 9/11/01, and always will be. The day itself, seared into the memories of so many, is past, and is becoming a historical event before our eyes. Schools now teach it in history courses, to children who otherwise know nothing of it, and to high school freshmen who were not even born yet on that day. College freshmen probably lack conscious memory of it, as do many, if not most, of those voting for the first time this year. They learn of 9/11 secondhand, to the bewilderment of those who remember it so vividly.
My age positions me between those who experienced 9/11 with full awareness and those with no memory of it. My memories are real but incomplete. But they are there. And I am reminded of this more and more as I encounter those with no such memories. An 18-year-old cousin. A friend who was two years old that day. A college freshman whose first day of kindergarten happened to be September 11, 2001. “I don’t remember any of the news stories from that day,” he says. “It’s crazy imagining how distressed everyone was the next few weeks. All while I was learning to tie my shoes and spell the word cat.” For them and many others, the event that has, in many ways, defined the United States (and many parts of the world) since it occurred is only part of history.
I suppose I should not find this odd. It’s how time works. We all accept the inherited memory of the past. And, having received it, we become its stewards. It becomes our duty to transmit this memory to the future, to keep alive what has been remembered lest it be forever forgotten. This is arguably the main purpose and benefit of civilization.
Yet I nonetheless accept this duty with some humbling trepidation. Telling friends about something that happened in our lifetimes that they don’t remember makes me feel, well, old. I recognize, moreover, the responsibility this entails, described by Abraham Lincoln in an 1838 speech. Lincoln attributed America’s success not only to the efforts of the generation who fought the Revolutionary War, but also to that generation’s persistence in the nation’s life. Yet when he spoke, that generation was fading away; he pondered the effects its passing would have.
I do not mean to say, that the scenes of the revolution are now or ever will be entirely forgotten, but that like everything else, they must fade upon the memory of the world, and grow more and more dim by the lapse of time. In history, we hope, they will be read of, and recounted, so long as the bible shall be read; but even granting that they will, their influence cannot be what it heretofore has been.
We are a long way away from this eventuality. But someday it will come. When it does, those entrusted with the memory of 9/11 must fight the same battles we do today: against forgetfulness, revisionism, and the noxious lies of conspiracy theories. It is our duty to ensure that the world never forgets September 11, 2001. And it is our hope that some future eight-year-old does not experience another.