9/11 and the use of memory

Jill Segger
By Jill Segger
12 Sep 2011

“This is the use of memory – for liberation.” These lines from Little Gidding have been coiling round my mind and demanding a context as the world remembers the events of 11 September 2001.

First, the remembrance of the fact. My parents' generation always remembered where they were and what they were doing when the news of President Kennedy's assassination broke. We remember 9/11 in a similar manner.

It was the day Tony Blair was due to address the TUC Conference in Brighton. I had switched on the TV, laid pen and notebook in readiness and gone into the kitchen to pour a cup of tea. Returning, I saw a plane fly into a skyscraper and assumed for a moment that I had tuned to the wrong channel and was seeing a disaster movie. Even as the loop played over and over and the scrolling information at the bottom of the screen revealed the truth, it was hard to grasp what was happening. In the hours and days that followed, that feeling intensified. It did not seem hyperbolic to believe that nothing was ever going to be quite the same again.

Next, I remember the fear. All our public places and institutions felt vulnerable. Civil aviation, in all its unremarkable ubiquity, had taken on a new and terrifying lethal potential. For a generation who had not known war, the idea that death and destruction could fall without warning from the sky was profoundly de-stabilising. I recall standing still in the street, shortly after the ban on flying was lifted, as a jet-liner flew low over the town. Everyone in my line of vision was doing the same. We looked up and froze. I remember wondering how long this paralysis of fear would persist in our collective and individual behaviour.

It is that fear which made possible the worst aspects of the US and UK responses. Frightened populations are more likely to be pliable and uncritical. George Bush, the most bellicose and intellectually unsophisticated US president in recent history was smart enough to see that. And the devastation which he and his willing subaltern Blair unleashed on Iraq and Afghanistan in the name of the “war on terror”, is only gradually becoming subject to real questioning from political and military thinkers.

Then remember the corruption of language; its perversion from tool of reason to weapon of propaganda. Leaving aside the irrationality of 'warring' against an abstract noun, the very use of the word 'war' permits only one solution - the use of armed force. All the power and potential of diplomacy, dialogue, development, negotiation, intelligence and non-violent resolution were discounted in the imaginations of power and public alike by the term. And its spin-offs: “wanted, dead or alive”; “if you're not for us you're against us”; “these are the bad guys” “ we will prevail” served to simplify, to polarise, to close down analysis and to de-humanise. Among their sour fruits were Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib and the process of 'extraordinary rendition'.

For those of us who did not lose anyone in the atrocities of 9/11, the duty of remembering is not just that of memorialising those taken so horribly and untimely out of life on an apparently peaceful morning in early autumn. That must be done, so that the bereaved, both individually and as a nation, might find some comfort in a community of mourning. We have to find the symbols and rites which recognise the enormity of the act and the magnitude of the loss. But these actions of remembrance must also enable reflection and contemplation, must make space for recognition of something more than the shaking of a mailed fist, and must make possible the moving away from horror and fear towards a future of peace and reconciliation.

If such a future is to be possible, we have to be liberated from the divisive and sclerotic concepts which grew out of the devastation of 9/11. We have to question the rhetoric which would perpetuate that thinking and we have to believe that out of the grief, the anger and the pain, we can be liberated to achieve something better – for the sake of the dead of 9/11 and of Iraq and Afghanistan as well as for ourselves and our children.

Towards the conclusion of Little Gidding, Eliot hints at how we might be able to understand that liberation:

We die with the dying:
See, they depart and we go with them.
We are born with the dead:
See, they return and bring us with them.

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© Jill Segger is an Associate Director of Ekklesia with particular involvement in editorial issues. She is a freelance writer who contributes to the Church Times, Catholic Herald, Tribune, Reform and The Friend, among other publications. Jill is an active Quaker. See: http://www.journalistdirectory.com/journalist/TQig/Jill-Segger You can follow Jill on Twitter at: http://www.twitter.com/quakerpen

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