Ashes to Ashes, We All Fall Down
September 11, 2011 § 1 Comment
I was listening to the radio on Thursday, as I am wont to do when I’m in the shower. I flicked my crummy Sony radio on, black, was my father’s until I unceremoniously stole it, to the Edge. I don’t particularly like the Edge, especially since they were bought by Corus and decided to market to the ageing, 30-somethings who only want to listen to Nirvana and “safe” new music. I stopped trusting them to play “new music” when they interrupted one of their own ads about how fresh their music was to play Metallica.
But Fred wasn’t playing music right then. He was on the phone with someone, ranting about the upcoming anniversary of 9/11, and how there was too much coverage. “Too much!” He said, until he wondered, “and who’s profiting off it, from all this?” His nameless lackey on the phone nodded along. Well, it was radio, so I assume he was nodding while he kept saying “Uh huh”, and “yeah!”.
I’ve heard that refrain a lot this past week. Boing Boing has an appropriate memorial to 9/11 on their website put up today. It has a selection of artefacts recovered from the towers, with the story of the artefacts and the people who wore them, or carried them, or died in them.
As a memorial, it’s perfect. Politics has no place in it. There are no hanging “what now” questions. It doesn’t even ask what’s changed since then. All it is is a selection of stories that, when put together, tell us a little about what happened that day. That’s why it works. It’s not about us. It’s about the people who were there on the day that it happened. That’s all.
Yet it just goes to show that 99% of internet commentators are jerks, fools, or simply arrogant. The comments are filled with angry, indignant statements, like: “The memorial is a waste of money!” “WHY do we remember!”, and my personal favourite,
Nothing like a heaping dose of dramatic morbidity to keep the sheep rooted in their fear and self-pity.
Use any means available to perpetuate the madness.
I admit to not living in the US and so I’ve been able to avoid the, well, hype that lead up to today. And yet, I can think of no satisfactory explanation for the revulsion around this particular commemoration. On the one hand, I am aware of the thorny political issues surrounding 9/11 and aware of the failings of the United States in addressing those issues. That’s a polite way of saying, “they done fucked up.” And these discussions are important to have. Flying has not gotten safer now that the TSA gropes you. The Muslim East has not gotten more democratic since Afghanistan and Iraq were invaded, and America has much to answer for.
But this is what I say to those self-righteous paragons of clemency, of responsible media control, of all those who say that we should shut up about 9/11, who ask how we can remember 2,996 dead when hundreds of thousands, if not millions, have died in Iraq? Indeed, let’s talk about those questions…tomorrow.
I’m going to show you something. It’s not a nice picture, but I want you to see it.
That picture shows the last Jewish man in Vinnitsa, small a village in Ukraine. It was taken just before he was shot by the Einsatzgruppen, the German forces tasked with the majority of the killings that formed the Holocaust. The man’s eyes still haunt me some days. He’s not looking at the camera, or the man who’s about to kill him, but he’s looking at something without a trace of fear in them. Maybe he’s replaying the memory of all those who knew and loved shot in front of his eyes. Maybe he’s already dead, and his body just hasn’t realized it yet. Is he clenching his hands because they’re cold, or because he’s furious, or terrified? What was his name? In any case, he probably died a few seconds after this picture was taken. The last of 28,000.
This is not to equate the Holocaust with 9/11. That is impossible, stupid, and shameful to the point of dishonourable. But I don’t actually want to talk about the Holocaust. I used that picture to rouse up unpleasant memories and force us to look those memories right in the eye. I want to talk about historical memory and commemoration of violence.
I’m an historian of Eastern Europe in the 20th Century, and so I am well-versed in violence and memory. And, as I encountered many, many times, why we remember violent actions is a difficult question to answer. Does it make us better people, to know what the last Jew in Vinnitsa looked like? Does it help us get by, day to day, to know that perhaps 250,000 Chechens died in the Second Chechen War? I know the answer to those questions: it doesn’t.
But why remember at all then? Why commemorate? Even now, I do not know for certain. I do not percisely know why I walked through Auschwitz, why I forced myself to watch video of the Rwandan massacres. Much like Fearless Fred could have done with all that 9/11 noise, I could have turned off the radio. I could have walked away. I didn’t need to make it a part of me.
But that’s precisely why we remember. It is a choice to remember the violence in our past. We could forget right now if we so wished. Burn the books, shut down the servers, hush the survivors. It would make our lives easier, if we did that. It would make them cleaner, and nicer, and we wouldn’t have to remember the eyes of the last Jew in Vinnitsa. But we can’t, because there’s a second reason why we don’t.
Whether we want to admit it or not, being around violence wounds us. Not “us” as society, nor “us” as an indeterminate mass of people. Us. You, and me. We wear scars, whether they be from Libya, from New York, from Iraq, from a boy who hurt you, from a woman who scorned you, from the person who raped you. Our scars do not make us who we are, but they are a part of us. It would be nice to forget, but that would mean making the same mistakes, hating the same things, being the same people we were before. Ironically, it would mean being trapped in the past, a past we don’t want to admit exists.
I want people to discuss how we remember 9/11. I want people to criticize American foreign policy in response to 9/11. I want people to stop hiding behind 9/11 as though it excuses violence and hate. I want people to look forward, not back. I want us to work together to make this world a better place.
But I want that to happen tomorrow. Today, we should remember what it felt like to be small and afraid and mad and confused and not sure what to do. We should remember the 2,996 people who died on that day. We should remember that all of us will live forever under a dust cloud that won’t fully clear.
And believe me it’ll hurt. It’ll hurt like Hell itself. But then, before you know it, the sun will be up again and it’ll be tomorrow. And although the world won’t be ok, and although there will still be wars and hatred and bad drivers, it won’t be 9/11 any more. So if we remember, if we remember everything that happened, and if we remember everything that happened because of that goddamned day, and everything that happened because of hate and anger and violence from that goddamned day, then maybe, on that day that isn’t 9/11 any more, we can start working on making the world right.
If we do that, then maybe, just maybe, there won’t be another 9/11. And I couldn’t think of a better memorial for all those who died ten years ago.
I’ll see you next week.