Do Unto Others focuses on the Middle East, (nonviolent) social movements, and how I make sense of my place in the world. I'm currently based in Cairo, Egypt doing peacebuilding and community development.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

It matters how we choose to remember 9/11

We'll never forget. 

We'll always remember.

Remember 9/11. 

It's right to remember the victims of that day, to build memorials for the victims and the capacity (locally, nationally, and globally) for dealing with grievances in a nonviolent manner. But I wonder who "we" are, and I wonder what it is that we are "remembering."

I assume "we" is meant to be U.S. citizens, people who have lived most of their lives in the United States and identify as "Americans."  "We," in the context of 9/11 remembrance, seems to include those who identify as being in the same community as those who were killed in the World Trade Center. But I struggle with national categories because I've come into contact with the ugly side of nationalism: when it's manifested as xenophobia rather than positively, as a sense of community.  National communities are certainly imagined communities, "socially constructed, imagined by the people who perceive themselves as part of that group."    I also struggle with national identity because I may have more in common with a street vendor from Bangladesh than I do a farmer from Kansas or a banker from California. The farmer, the banker, and I might all know the rules of baseball and the first line of the Gettysburg Address, but the vendor and I might share values and life aspirations (and the vendor probably knows cricket, which is like baseball but with British costumes and weird throwing motions).

I also wonder whether those of us who have mixed feelings about the popular national narrative of 9/11 are included in the "we." What if I'm conflicted about the jingoistic narrative of 9/11 and downright appalled at all that was done in response to the attacks on 9/11?  Which leads me to the politics of remembrance.

What if I think that we should remember the innocent Iraqis and Afghanis that were killed as a result of the wars that my country waged shortly after 9/11? Most of them were innocent just like the firefighters and businesspeople that were killed in the World Trade Center, no? But if I happen to mention the innocent civilians killed, who happen to be of a different nationality, then I am perceived as less than a full member of my own national community.  Those who question the national narrative of 9/11 are dismissed in explicit and implicit ways.  And I'm white. The situation has been downright ugly for many Arab, Arab-looking, and Muslim Americans, even those who haven't uttered a word of critique about the U.S. national narrative of 9/11.

What we choose to remember and how we choose to remember matters. Do we only remember our own, or do we remember all those who were lost as a result of hatred, sectarianism, nationalism, and intolerance: NYC firefighters and police, World Trade Center workers, Afghan women, and Iraqi children. There were hundreds of victims of suicide bombings last week in Iraq, a phenomenon that only arrived after the U.S. invasion of the country, and continues (according to many analysts) as a result of U.S. counterinsurgency policies (such as allying with and arming Sunni militias) which radically fomented sectarian divisions in Iraqi society.


I was recently in New York (for the first time!) and solicited advice for things to do. A couple of friends suggested that I visit the 9/11 memorial as it was quite moving and meaningful for them when they visited.  I thought about their suggestion but decided it wasn't the right time for me to visit the memorial.

I remember all of the details of that morning just like the rest of you, but I don't know how to handle all of the pain that has resulted from the ripples of that day, especially the pain and tragedies that have not been recognized by the American people.  Thousands killed that morning. Hundreds of thousands killed in Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Somalia, and Pakistan as the War on Terror has spawned more and more foreign militants who want to combat the War on Terror.

Going to the memorial would make me feel like I was remembering our dead at the cost of forgetting their dead. It matters how we define "we," and it matters how we remember.   

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