Keep the righteous memory in your heart

September 11, 2002|By Arthur J. Magida

SEPTEMBER 11 is the longest day in our lives.

A year later, it hasn't ended. We've been carrying it around for 365 days now: a weight that can't be released, a heaviness that can't be lightened. For a full year, there has not been a single day when Sept. 11 has not invaded our consciousness, reminding us that a new horror has assaulted our world.

We're in a war that's not a war: a phantom war, a stealth war. It's subtle and invisible and quiet and hushed and truly scary. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise. This war, to borrow what Bob Dylan said 40 years ago about far different circumstances, has shaken our windows and rattled our walls.

The difference between Mr. Dylan's time and ours is that the shaking and rattling of the 1960s rebuilt and strengthened the American house, while today's shaking has pandered to some of our worst instincts -- xenophobia, jingoism, simplistic sloganeering, and hawks hungering for a dumb war with Iraq that won't solve a damn thing.

A year later, and we're still not sure what to make of it: Was it evil that destroyed those towers in lower Manhattan? Were the 19 men on those four planes cowards, hiding behind their warped interpretations of an ancient faith?

Have we witnessed the horrible deficits of religion: its inability to stop people from turning metaphysics inside out until they taunt their own founding prophets and seers?

When you see your world crumble around you, you tend to keep your eye on the day of the crumbling. One of the most frightening aspects of the crumbling is that it has shaken us more than any national calamity in our history. We can attribute that partly to the corrupt genius of the terrorists, partly to TV, radio and the Internet dumping everything instantly into our collective synapses.

Americans learned about Pearl Harbor as they were waking up that Sunday morning in 1941. But it was so removed from them -- Hawaii was a distant island, and newsreels of the attack weren't in film theaters until a few days afterward -- that the shock was less visceral than what we suffered last September.

The Kennedy assassination was another story: By then, television was in everyone's living room. When Walter Cronkite wept announcing that JFK had died, we wept with him.

With Sept. 11 now a year behind us, we can begin peering into tea leaves to see how it might be honored in the future. Unfortunately, the anniversaries of some past calamities are not much help. The first anniversaries of Pearl Harbor occurred while the United States was fighting a brutal war, and Dec. 7 was marked with the Navy praising itself for rebuilding the Pacific fleet, with college students giving blood, and with newspapers assailing, as did The New York Times, Japan's "rain of death."

The first anniversaries of the Kennedy assassination were marked by hoping we'd mended our gun-happy ways, with church bells tolling around the country -- and with ghouls paying a buck apiece to see Lee Harvey Oswald's room in a boarding house in Dallas.

This is a different age, and we're dealing with a very different tragedy. Today's commemorations of 9/11, one can hope, will be more somber, more reflective, more true to the spirit of that troubled day. I pray that we may be able to distinguish between true grief and the entertainment industry equivalent of sweeps week at the networks. I pray that we don't rush to build memorials at Ground Zero or the Pentagon or Shanksville, Pa., because only with time and thought and deliberation will we know what happened and why it happened and what it means and how we can represent it.

The only surety I have is that we will not forget. In the Hebrew Bible, the word zakor, "remember," appears 169 times. The exhortation is to remember history and exile and faith and exodus. To know that memory itself is substance and deliverance.

Sept. 11 seared the American soul so sorely, so deeply, so achingly that it will not be forgotten. The shape of that memory is what is now at stake. It cannot be tarnished. It cannot be emasculated. It cannot be refashioned in the name of politics and righteousness.

The memory itself is what is righteous. Its power ensures that we do not wander, as the Greek poet George Seferis wrote in 1935, "Around broken stones, three or six thousand years, searching in collapsed buildings that might have been our homes, trying to remember dates and heroic deeds."

We know the date and we know the heroes. Our task is to keep them in our hearts.

Arthur J. Magida is the writer-in-residence at the University of Baltimore.

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