Why We Must Remember
I remember the day as if it happened just this morning. September 11, 2001. About 9:15 am I was in my office preparing for a staff meeting when Dr. Robert Preston, our provost back then, stopped by and asked if I heard the news that an airplane had flown into the World Trade Center in New York. I immediately turned on the small black and white camper television I kept by my desk — we didn’t have the Internet then, no social media, no Twitter, not even a color TV in my office… no digital TV either, this was all old analog televison. I saw the news replaying the grainy image of an airplane flying into one of the towers of the World Trade Center. A sad accident, I assumed, and went on to the senior staff meeting. A few minutes after our meeting started, Trinity’s security chief rushed into the room to say that there were strong rumors of bombs in Washington. Everyone looked upset, and that was the end of our meeting. We decided to go to Social Hall where there was one relatively small color television. Students were gathering. We saw the second plane go into the other World Trade Center tower. We heard the Pentagon was hit. Suddenly Social Hall was packed and everyone started to feel panic — even me! It was 9:45 am and the world had changed suddenly, horrifically, in shocking ways. After a moment’s panic, I realized I had to do something constructive, so I asked everyone to sit down, remain calm, and we would work on finding out more. We opened all of the offices and told students they could use our phones to try to call their families — imagine all of this happening without cell phones, no email or texting. We continued to watch the news, horrified, but as time went on there was some small comfort being together in Social Hall. Our Trinity family was there for each other. We could not get much information except what we heard on that little TV in Social Hall, but it was enough to tell us that our nation had been attacked. Later on we would learn the appalling death toll, including members of our extended Trinity family, husbands and sons and daughters, a teacher who had been in our Continuing Ed program and her student. Random names now part of our collective sorrow.
Later that afternoon, as the crowd in Social Hall began to subside as students, faculty and staff started on their long journeys home, I went up to the 4th Floor of Main, and from the windows on the south end I could see the smoke rising from the Pentagon. I walked out on campus past the Trinity Center that was, at that time, just a few concrete pillars rising up from the construction site. I wondered if the building would ever be completed. I wondered how many other big projects and grand schemes were now interrupted, perhaps permanently.
The next day we gathered again in Social Hall to talk about what happened. A group of our conference guests — back then we had the Elderhostel program on campus, women and men in their retirement ears — regaled us with their story of being trapped in downtown DC blocks away from their bus and traffic at a standstill. Some of them were World War II veterans and they wondered if we were on the cusp of a new world war.
People under about Age 25 today might wonder why we keep telling the stories of September 11 over and over again. To them, our memories are as ancient as the memories my parents retold of Pearl Harbor or living through the Depression. Just as Millennials tire of the Boomers obsessively talking about Vietnam, so, too, Gen Z is not overly interested in September 11 (so some researchers tell us) — but they will tell the next generations of what it was like to live through the Covid-19 pandemic.
Historical memory is vitally important to shape the knowledge and responses of succeeding generations to the great challenges of our society. Just as the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941 forced the United States out of isolation and into its destiny as a major power in World War II, so, too, the appalling acts of terrorism on September 11, 2001 forced this country to confront the long-simmering threat of terrorism and violence committed by rogue actors, as opposed to nation states.
September 11 also had a boomerang impact on our society that continues to haunt us today. After a period of national unity in the face of so much evil and destruction, the United States began to experience greater and greater domestic unrest and fragmentation. The rise of authoritarian threads in our political environment has roots in the reaction to the 9/11 terrorism. After that evil day, we readily gave up a number of freedoms in our quest for more security — the surveillance state became normal, and the growth of authoritarianism was a natural result of our collective submission to governmental control.
The damage of September 11 was not just measured in the destruction of more than 3,000 lives and so many buildings. The real damage continues today in the fear and suspicion that course through our nation, and in the ways that demagogues foment the fear and suspicion to gain power. Osama bin Laden, the 9/11 mastermind, may be dead, but the long tentacles of his evil plot continue to torment us.
We must remember so that we can understand our present challenges, so that we can find solutions to repair the damage. If we forget, if we ignore or repress the past, we will never be free of the evil DNA left as so much toxic dust to infect this nation. As we remember, let us redouble our efforts to make sure that we reclaim and enlarge those freedoms that are the best antidote to terror and tyranny.