Selective Memory

Never forget.

After 20 years, it’s fitting that we once again remind ourselves to remember. The significance of that awful Tuesday—of its destructive terror and its heroic bravery—demands an enduring place in our collective consciousness. The only thing more tragic than the events themselves would be the mistake of letting them slip into the oblivion of forgotten history. It’s our sacred duty never to lose sight of what we endured that day. What we overcame. What we lost.

This act of remembering, however, is not merely a reflective exercise. It’s also a formational one. What we remember defines who we are. In choosing to remember, we are making a statement about the kind of people we want to become. Brave, resilient, sacrificial. We remember the firefighters running up the stairs, because we admire them. And we know that we could all stand to be a little more like them.

To forget would be to betray our own identity. Which is why we must never do it.

And yet in our determination to remember the atrocities of September 11, a troubling question drifts to the surface: Why are we so zealous to remember the tragedies of which we are the victims, and so reluctant to remember the tragedies of which we are the culprits?

Across the Atlantic, another nation has vowed never to forget. They create art. They educate their youth. They set up memorials. They embrace the weighty responsibility of honoring the legacy of millions who lost their lives. But the remembrance of the German people is fundamentally different from the remembrance we pursue on September 11. Theirs is a repentant remembrance. A remembrance rooted in the realization that their parents and grandparents were complicit in one of the most horrific events in human history.

As important as it is for people to remember the suffering that has been inflicted upon them, it’s arguably even more important for them to remember the suffering they have inflicted upon others. And that’s not just true for Germans living in the shadow of the Holocaust.

Our own national history is far from pristine. But two particular horrors stand out above the rest: the opportunistic genocide of the native people who occupied this land for generations before Europeans arrived and the centuries of human slavery upon which our economic success has been built. These have often been identified as the “original sins” of our country, and rightfully so. It is hard to imagine more devastating and shameful actions that a country could commit.

And how do we remember those transgressions of our past? How do we ensure that such grave offenses against our fellow human beings will never be repeated? By and large, we don’t. At best, we conveniently brush them aside. At worst, we intentionally choose to bury them beneath a mountain of lies. The end result, however, is the same either way: these offenses inflicted at the hands of our nation occupy no meaningful place in our shared sense of self-awareness. As diligent as countries like Germany seem to be about remembering their crimes, we seem to be equally diligent about forgetting our own.

This weekend as I reflected on the September 11 terrorist attacks, I accidentally stumbled across the iconic picture of a prisoner at Abu Ghraib prison being tortured by American soldiers. It’s a chilling image, and it reminds us of the staggering complexity of our moral identity as a nation. We have endured much evil, but we have administered much evil, as well. We can’t fixate on one while denying the other. If we are to be honest about ourselves and our legacy, we must remember both.

Remembering, after all, is not merely a reflective exercise. It’s also a formational one. What we remember defines who we are. And if we refuse to remember the part of our past that brings us shame, we cannot become a country that rises above it. Choosing not to remember the ugly stuff doesn’t make it go away. It just makes us less honest, less healthy, and less whole in the aftermath of it.

Some Americans might feel threatened by this suggestion. They may think that continually rehearsing the misdeeds of our past would weaken our sense of moral superiority and inherent goodness as a nation. And I would agree with them. It definitely would.

But that’s the whole point. That’s exactly what we need. Our inability to confront the delusions under which we live are warping our character as a country. We have been formed by half-truths, and these half-truths have left us frighteningly disfigured. 

But imagine if our “never forget” motto could also be applied to the two original sins that continue to haunt our history. What if, for example, we vowed never to forget the smallpox, measles, and firearms that decimated some 90 percent of the indigenous population in the Americas between 1492 and 1600? What if we vowed never to forget the rancid conditions aboard the ships transporting enslaved Africans across the ocean? Just to name a few.

Certainly, these would be uncomfortable memories for us to maintain. But if memories indeed shape our identities, then maybe these uncomfortable memories would, in the long run, prove to be constructive for us as a society. Maybe they could make us a bit gentler, a bit kinder, a bit more humble.

On occasions such as this, it is good for us to remember the many ways that our freedom has been threatened, and the many ways that it has prevailed. These memories make us strong. They unite us. They instill us with courage. They challenge us to carry on the legacy of those who shielded their coworkers, walked toward the flames, and hijacked the plane from the hijackers. These memories are indispensable. We should never drift too far from Ground Zero. 

But it’s also good for us to remember the many ways that we have failed. And in so doing, we might just become a country more worthy than ever of the sacrifices so many have heroically made on its behalf.

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