Have We Forgotten Yet? - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
Have We Forgotten Yet?

The second anniversary of 9/11 will be marked appropriately with solemn ceremonies of remembrance. In a culture that worships the momentary, our fidelity to our fallen is heartening. What is less encouraging is that the remembrance of 9/11 seems overwhelmingly composed of mourning and loss, and very little comprised of national purpose, let alone anger.

A new documentary on A & E, Seven Days in September, is a good example. It is in many ways a gripping film, documenting the effects on the city during the first week of the attacks, and told (and often shot) through the eyes of ordinary citizens. There is memorable footage of citizens debating one another in Union Square, the historical hotbed of left-wing political activity in the city. Some of those in the crowd advocate aggressively hawkish responses to the attacks. (I never seem to be walking by when these New Yorkers are out. What neighborhoods are they hiding in?) But at no point do the citizens featured in the film express a desire for the United States to eradicate the terrorist menace. Their reflections focus instead on loss, fear, or the way their attitudes toward the city have changed. If you didn’t know what the subject was, you might think they were discussing an earthquake or some other natural disaster.

But 9/11 wasn’t a natural disaster, nor was it that most misused word, tragedy. It was an atrocity committed willfully and with great sophistication. Do we remember that part? Do we want to remember that part?

The World War I poet Siegfried Sassoon is renowned for his harrowing descriptions of the horrors and futility of war. Sassoon had good reason to decry the folly of the First World War, but like all poets his work can take on unexpected applications in different times and places. His poem “Aftermath,” like so many of his others, warns that if the Great War is forgotten, it will be repeated:

Have you forgotten yet?…
For the world’s events have rumbled on since those gagged days
Like traffic checked while at the crossing of city-ways:
And the haunted gap in your mind has filled with thoughts that flow
Like clouds in the lit heaven of life; and you’re a man reprieved to go,
Taking your peaceful share of Time, with joy to spare.
But the past is just the same — and War’s a bloody game…
Have you forgotten yet?…
Look down, and swear by the slain of the War that you’ll never forget.

The “haunted gap” in our national memories has begun to fill with other thoughts, as it must. Unfortunately, the gap is filled by the same forces that were there before — partisan politics, cultural vulgarity, social division. The sobering fact on the 2nd anniversary of 9/11 is that America is far from united in its purposes. President Bush made a rare address to the nation Sunday night, ostensibly to report on developments in Iraq but actually to defend the very concept of a war on Islamic terrorists. That he should have to do so is to some degree his own fault, since his performance as a communicator of the war’s goals leaves quite a bit to be desired. But it also speaks volumes about the country’s inability to remember 9/11 as something beyond a national day of mourning.

September 11th was first and foremost a national day of horror. The middle stanza of Sassoon’s poem is the one most closely tied to his time and place, but with a little imagination one can readily transport himself to those early days at Ground Zero:

Do you remember the dark months you held the sector at Mametz —
The nights you watched and wired and dug and piled sandbags on parapets?
Do you remember the rats; and the stench
Of corpses rotting in front of the front-line trench —
And dawn coming, dirty-white, and chill with a hopeless rain?
Do you ever stop and ask, “Is it all going to happen again?”

Will it happen again? Opinion polls indicate that most Americans believe it will sooner or later. Those same polls indicate, however, that the war on terror lags far behind the economy as a priority nationally. And of course, we need a national prescription drug benefit…so apparently the answer to Sassoon’s question is, Yes, it will happen again. But in the meantime, there ‘s got to be a way to make generic Viagra affordable and available to all.

Do you remember that hour of din before the attack —
And the anger, the blind compassion that seized and shook you then
As you peered at the doomed and haggard faces of your men?
Do you remember the stretcher-cases lurching back
With dying eyes and lolling heads — those ashen-grey
Masks of the lads who once were keen and kind and gay?

Have you forgotten yet?…
Look up, and swear by the green of the spring that you’ll never forget.

We won’t forget those we lost, but we must also not forget how we lost them. If memory is devoted solely to the focus on absence and not on cause, then 9/11 becomes no different than a day of mourning for the victims of a tragic fire. Unfortunately there are a good number of Americans who for various reasons desire this kind of national posture. Those of us who disagree will have to win this argument before America can win the war.

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