“Will it Rise?” September 11 in American Memory

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This essay by Professor David Blight, director of the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance and Abolition, is from the book “Memory Remains: 9/11 Artifacts at Hangar 17”

Ruin has taught me thus to ruminate,
That Time will come and take my love away.
This thought is as a death, which cannot choose
But weep to have that which it fears to lose.

– William Shakespeare, Sonnet 64

The attacks on September 11, 2011 shocked, terrified, and galvanized Americans. Collectively, we did not even know the enemy who attacked us, nor at first how to properly pronounce its name, “Al Qaeda.” Unaware, humiliated, angry, from New York, Washington, DC, and Shanksville, Pennsylvania to the smallest towns in the Great Plans or the Pacific West, we ached to understand how this horrifying violence and mass murder on “our own soil” could fit into a familiar American story. But for most Americans, 9/11 was decidedly a most unfamiliar event.

Despite thousands of images of mass terror and genocide in the twentieth century, and our awareness of the carpet bombing of cities, slaughtering civilians in World War II, we were collectively and psychologically unprepared for 9/11. Even with our knowledge that we had ourselves used atomic weapons to end the war in the Pacific in 1945, with our definitions of evil forever molded around figures such as Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, and even Saddam Hussein, and with the bombing of a federal building in 1995 in Oklahoma City by an anti-government domestic terrorist, resulting in 168 innocent civilian deaths, we were stunned into disbelief when the planes hit the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The sheer audacity of the attack, and the apocalyptic scale of the collapse of the two towers in lower Manhattan, the epicenter of American and world capitalism, forced us all to stumble through our grief, through the ruins themselves, and through our shattered calm and innocence. Despite its ubiquity, war always seems to surprise us. Ambrose Bierce provided an apt, if forever disturbing definition of war. War, he wrote, is “a by product of the arts of peace… the soil of peace is thickly sown with the seeds of war and singularly suited to their germination and growth… War loves to come like a thief in the night; professions of eternal amity provide the night.”

Throughout the history of the United States, it seems, Americans have been forever embracing, losing, and then regaining a sense of national innocence. Long observed by foreign commentators, and by some of our own perceptive writers, this tendency to believe that America can and has lived above the world’s shattering tragedies, immune from the madness that destroys civilizations, and in a kind of perpetual, improving future, is a habit of our hearts that will not die. We have a rich historical scholarship that shows how American society descended into disunion and Civil War in 1861 after a prolonged period of apparent boundlessness in its geographical expansion and optimism in its artistic culture. The limits of America seemed bounded only by the scale of its imagination, until slavery drove armies to Bull Run creek and the spring meadows of Shiloh. But the even more expansionist, materialistic Gilded Age pushed America outward into the scramble for empire and its muscular progress narrative found new voices and audiences by the turn of the twentieth century in a nation teeming with immigrants demanding hope and new beginnings.

The “end” of American “innocence” was proclaimed over and over for the World War I era as a nineteenth century set of seemingly stable and secure values collided with total war, the waste lands of the western front, modernism, technological revolutions, internationalism, and a new world order that challenged American isolationism as never before. Indeed, Henry May wrote a remarkable book, The End of American Innocence (1959), focused on 1912-1917, in which he probed how a “dominant American credo” (three great ideas or values) collapsed from both external and internal pressures and contradictions. Those three big ideas were one, belief in the certainty of a western set of universal moral values; two, belief in the inevitability of human progress, especially in America; and three, faith in traditional European high culture (especially in literature and the arts) as the model for the world. Such previously settled creeds were destroyed in the Great War, or so the story goes.

But not the innocence at the heart of American historical memory. The British historian-journalist, D. W. Brogan, visiting the United States in 1936, and arriving in the heartland of Missouri and Illinois, marveled at an “indefinable American air of happiness and ease” he observed in small towns, and an “American natural isolationism” virtually everywhere. As Europe began to collapse into tyranny and destruction again, Brogan thought he found the eye of the world’s brewing storm in St. Louis, in the middle of the country: “the calm, dead center of a tornado whose outer boundaries were too far away for comprehension or apprehension.” By the time Brogan wrote his book, The American Character, in 1944, he had stood in San Francisco and watched “the dead and wounded from Pearl Harbor… being brought ashore” through the recently completed Golden Gate Bridge. And he had seen America rise from its isolationist slumber and decisively help save the “fate of civilization” in Europe and Asia. Americans had finally learned that the “world is really round,” Brogan said, and interdependent, not merely a flat, uni-directional march to new freedoms and beginnings in their endless West.

Or so it seemed. Yet another brand of American innocence emerged in the certainties, the prosperity, and the apparent consensus of the Cold War culture in the 1950s. But with the civil rights revolution, unprecedented urban race riots, the Vietnam War, and the assassinations of the 1960s, that Cold War consensus unraveled with devastating social consequences; American innocence seemed once again crushed. Yet in 1980, Ronald Reagan declared it “morning again” in America, and millions wanted to believe we had survived Watergate, the oil embargoes, desegregation, feminism, the sexual revolution, and the Iranian hostage crisis to once again renew a sunny, national disposition and a global Rule Americana against the “evil empire” of the Soviet Union. When the Cold War stunningly ended in 1989, and Soviet hegemony in eastern Europe dissolved as the Berlin Wall crumbled before our tears of joy and hope, some commentators declared an “end of history,” and an inchoate new age of “peace dividends” and Pax Americana. Innocence found new fruitful soil, until the invulnerable heartland of Oklahoma City exploded in terror on Patriots’ Day, 1995.

If indeed the United States is still fundamentally an idea, and not merely a land of inequality and warring material and ideological interests, then some degree of historical innocence seems to revive after each time it undergoes an apparently conclusive demise. Does this mean that well into our third century as a nation, we still have not achieved a fully chastened, mature, public national memory? Is it the case that without the myth, we might never survive our reality?

And then came the planes out of the calm, sunny skies of September 11, into our workplaces, our classrooms, our homes. Shockingly, and in minutes and hours that seemed like weeks or months, History interrupted a complacent America that had just settled down after a bitterly disputed election. In her story, “Twilight of the Superheroes” (2006), Deborah Eisenberg captured this shock for a nation of Americans, the vast majority of whom do not even own a passport. “It was as if there were a curtain,” she writes, “a curtain painted with the map of the earth, its oceans and continents… The planes struck, tearing through the curtain of that blue September morning, exposing the dark world that lay behind it, of populations ruthlessly exploited, inflamed with hatred, and tired of waiting for change to happen by.” Mass murder is just what it is – a crime against humanity. But even such evils have causes, if we have the will to discern them.

For a while after 9/11, writers and intellectuals all over the world faced a profound dilemma: had humor, satire, irony, political debate itself vanished into a stasis of sorrow, pity, and patriotism? Had meaning taken a hiatus in public discourse? The British writer, Martin Amis, promptly confessed that writing fiction had been “reduced, overnight, to a blue streak of pitiable babble… a feeling of gangrenous futility.” Such artistic despair did not last, but it was as if the rest of the angry world, driven by religion and a sense of inequality, had landed in our front yard. “Parts of our world have crumbled into theirs,” wrote the novelist, Don DeLillo, in December, 2001, “which means we are living in a place of danger and rage.” And the masses of Americans listened incessantly to their television commentators telling them “we will never be the same again,” a premise that seemed true in a vulnerable new world of terrorism. But a virile and tragic form of innocence came roaring back in 2003 as the Bush administration invaded Iraq and launched an almost endless war, rooted not only in faulty intelligence about weapons of mass destruction, but in misguided historical understanding of the region. America sent its skilled professional armed forces surging across the deserts of the Muslim Middle East to make new democracies in order, we thought, to protect our own.

We have a long history, therefore, of innocence lost and regained. It is hard to imagine any thoughtful person fearing today, as the essayist Philip Rahv did in 1952, that American writers might live by the “illusion that our society is in its very nature immune to tragic social conflicts and collisions… that the more acute problems of the modern epoch are unreal so far as we are concerned.” Unthinkable ten years after 9/11? We have thought ourselves immune to tragedy before, usually right before it hits us. So often in the past, collectively, we have found ourselves gazing at an Indian massacre, the fields at Gettysburg, a lynching tree, starving children during the Great Depression, a dead Kennedy or a dead King, the abandoned or the dead in the waters of Katrina, and now the ruins of Ground Zero, and we ask, “is this America?” As long as we are still asking that question, innocence in some form will revive.

In his book, Faith and History, Reinhold Niebuhr wrote with penetrating insight about this relationship between tragedy and innocence. “The capacity to live in the past by memory… emancipates the individual from the tyranny of the present,” said Niebuhr. People dearly need the myths by which they live. They can “seek asylum from present tumults in a past period of history, or use the memory of a past innocency to project a future of higher virtue.” Niebuhr understood that violent historical traumas require both healing and justice, and that achieving balance between the two is often impossible. “The processes of historical justice,” he writes, “are not exact enough to warrant the simple confidence in the moral character of history… moral judgments are executed in history, but never with precision… every execution of moral judgment in history is inexact because of its necessary relation to the morally irrelevant fact of power.” As Niebuhr tried to teach us, our deepest myths of American invulnerability, of chosenness, of moral superiority – our innocence – should run the gauntlet of our history and our present. But those myths may be as indestructible as they are at times lost, depending on who uses them and for what purpose.

In the wake of 9/11 we searched desperately for analogies of recognition. Was it a new Pearl Harbor? A Fort Sumter? Was it John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry in its surprise and violent shock? Where could we find markers in our historical memory to help this make sense? Was this 1861, 1914, 1941, 1968? Was this a new battle of Antietam in its scale of American deaths in one day? Where could we find a safe haven for our emotions and a story in which to root our comprehension? Within days of the attacks in New York, with families posting pictures of the missing all over the streets of lower Manhattan, and with New Yorkers witnessing one funeral after another for heroic firefighters and police officers, America and the world peered at pictures of the ruins of Ground Zero, at the burning, smoldering, fantastically huge “pile” of debris and at the grotesquely twisted beams and tridents, wondering in response to the awkward musings of journalists and politicians about how this site might one day be memorialized.

As demonstrated in the Torres photographs, the ruins seemed an alternative universe of horror, an otherworldly labyrinth of physical and human destruction. How would such loss be commemorated, such ruins removed and rebuilt? Indeed, some wondered why we are a culture that seems to insist on near instantaneous memorialization of major events, especially those involving great violence and sacrifice? Holocaust memorials began to appear in Europe as early as 1948, but their proliferation around the western world required decades to take hold. The large World War II national memorial on the Washington Mall was not constructed until more than five decades after VJ Day. A Korean War monument on the great national space took equally as long. The various “sacred grounds” of American military sacrifice, Pearl Harbor, Gettysburg, Lexington and Concord, Little Big Horn, the Alamo, and others, have been evolving, mythic sites of commemoration for generations.

The truth is that we cannot know the full, or even partial, meaning of an event like September 11 in a few years, a decade, or perhaps even a generation. The extended meanings of all great turning points in history depend entirely on the developing character of their aftermath. But in the wake of the most violent century on record, and living well into the second century of the psychological age of human self-understanding – in which we demand recognition of individuals sacrificed in mass violence and view was as the result of instinct as well as politics – we seem possessed by the urge to repair and commemorate. We have no patience for historical time and insist on immediate answers to the inherent politics of memorialization. All of these impulses are very human and, however vexing for professional historians and curators, they demand humane responses.

Any contemplation of 9/11 begins with its sense of loss; then, the trouble begins as we try to think in historical time. Mass death is, of course, not new to Americans. Nor are ruins. Our great death poet, Walt Whitman, seemed to never cease reflecting on his experiences nursing to the Civil War wounded and dying in hospitals in 1862-65. The dead and dying overwhelmed him emotionally as they also inspired his poetry and prose. To Whitman, those soldiers’ bodies and souls were themselves a form of ruins. In Specimen Days, he recollected endless “hell-scenes,” the “horribly mutilated… groaning and moaning.” Whitman did not sanitize the results of war. He portrayed his suffering soldiers like a recurring national nightmare, lit by “every lurid passion, the wolf’s, the lion’s lapping thirst for blood – the passionate, boiling volcanoes of human revenge for comrades, brothers slain – with the light of burning farms, and heaps of smutting, smouldering black embers – and in the human heart everywhere black, worse embers.” The “dead, the dead, the dead, our dead – or South or North, ours all,” he wailed, unable to remove their images, or the feel of their cold hands, from his mind.

And so it was with September 11 in New York. DeLillo, captured a similar haunting sensation in Falling Man. Keith, a character who has miraculously survived the collapse of the towers that morning with injuries to his limbs and psyche, returns to Ground Zero some days later to gaze at the site. “He stood at the National Rent-A-Fence barrier,” writes DeLillo, “and looked into the haze, seeing the strands of bent filigree that were the last standing things, a skeletal remnant of the tower where he’d worked for ten years. The dead were everywhere, in the air, in the rubble, on rooftops nearby, in the breezes that carried from the river. They were settled in ash and drizzled on windows all along the streets, in his hair and on his clothes.” Mysteriously, beyond science and outside of previously comprehended reality, those massive ruins had consumed the dead. And yet the dead, in a way, were and still are there.

So too in the Civil War, the ruins of farmsteads, rural battlefield landscapes, bleak prison compounds, and nearly whole cities seemed to consume the 620,000 dead and demand they not be forgotten. Ruins have a way of speaking to us on divergent frequencies, depending on their age, their political meaning, and whether time has rendered them somehow into either weathered beauty, or politicized images of horror.

In 1865, due to the devastation of the Civil War, America was truly a land with ruins. The country’s natural landscapes, especially in the West, had inspired imagery of ruins. But to European sensibilities, however beautiful a natural landscape, it was “uninteresting compared to a historic landscape,” wrote the French-Swiss woman of letters, Germaine Necker de Stael in 1807. Unlike the haunting, destroyed abbeys of the English Civil War of the seventeenth century or Rome’s ancient, majestic city of ruins, America’s destruction in the wake of Appomattox was brand new, but instantaneously historic, and at many battlefields and burial grounds, sacred. The American nation, reeling with loss and despair on an unprecedented scale, was not yet old; its ruins were not those made hoary by years or beautified through decay. But it was a country that had torn itself asunder – physically, politically, and spiritually. It was now a modern society forever burdened with a deeply divisive historical memory, riven with blood sacrifice that had to be explained and memorialized. America’s “historic landscapes” became more interesting because of the ruins of the Civil War.

No one understood this more than defeated white Southerners, who experienced the most devastation to their lives and property. Their ruins inspired different reactions depending on perspective. In October, 1865, just after his release from a five-month imprisonment, former Confederate vice-president, Alexander H. Stephens rode a slow train southward. In northern Virginia he found “the desolation of the country… was horrible to behold.” When Stephens reached northern Georgia, his native state, he was shocked: “War has left a terrible impression on the whole country to Atlanta. The desolation is heart-sickening. Fences gone, fields all a-waste, houses burnt.” However, Father Abram Ryan, known as the “Poet Priest of the Lost Cause” of the Confederacy, eventually found spiritual renewal in the South’s ruins. “A land without ruins is a land without memories,” said the preacher in 1876, “a land that wears a laurel crown may be fair to see; but twine a few sad cypress leaves around the brow of any land, and, be that land barren, beautiless, and bleak, it becomes lovely in its consecrated cornet of sorrow, and it wins the sympathy of heart and of history.” From such airy melancholia and real desolation, the defeated South would find an exotic and romantic niche in the American imagination.

But from these ruins Americans would have to imagine just how they would regenerate their country. In the wake of the war, thousands of Northern readers learned about the conditions and ruins of the South from traveling journalists. The novelist and poet, John Trowbridge, wrote the most lyrical of the many travel accounts published in the post-war years. As one of the first battlefield tourists, Trowbridge began his tour at Gettysburg in August, 1865. Upon his arrival in the town square, he asked the route to the battlefield of the “world famous fight.” A hotel keeper informed him, “you are on it now,” and directed him to a nearby house with a “Rebel shell embedded in the brick wall.” Similar rituals occur every day in New York today; tourists ask at their hotels or at the information desk at Grand Central Station: “which way or subway line to Ground Zero?” Guided around the battlefield by a local citizen, Trowbridge found the “stillness” of the summer day broken only by the “perpetual click-click” sound of stonecutters preparing headstones in the cemetery where Lincoln had delivered his famous address. He was especially bothered by almost countless labels of “unknown” on many of the stones. “So many killed,” he remarked, “with that brief sentence we glide over the unimaginably fearful fact, and pass on to other details.”

As at Gettysburg, so also at Ground Zero a century and a half later, people have felt a terrible stillness in viewing the ruins slowly transformed into a beautiful Memorial, accompanied by the constant sounds of massive construction equipment, and under the illumination of perpetual floodlights. And they have had to face similarly unimaginable, fearful facts. As Trowbridge looked into the long rows of trenches still open and freshly dug for all the dead at Gettysburg two years after the battle, he “saw the ends of coffins protruding,” and pondered warily the “awful uncertainty” of the nation’s rebirth. “Will it rise,” he asked without knowing an answer. How many Americans, or tourists from abroad, have stood over the ruins of Ground Zero, imagined the site as a graveyard, and pondered the uncertain character of the nation and the world emerging from 9/11?

Will it rise? What has risen? Memorials are always about the past; but they are almost always also about the present in which they are erected. In the case of the 9/11 Memorial and Museum, both the past it represents and the present in which it lives will be of very long duration. In the great Old Testament story of the “Valley of the Dry Bones,” the prophet Ezekiel found himself in a terrible, bleak landscape; the masses of horrifying bones were “very dry.” God confronts him with a question: “Son of man, can these bones live?” An awed Ezekiel cannot know. God put his hand on the prophet, breathes into the bones on the parched earth, and they begin to grow flesh and skin; they begin “shaking” and moving about as God pronounces: “Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.” Humbled, Ezekiel, “prophesized” as he “was commanded”; and behold, the bones become flesh “stood up upon their feet.” The story of 9/11 is very old, as it also seems so very new.

David W. Blight, “Will it Ever Rise? September 11 in American Memory,” in Clifford Chanin, ed., Francesc Torres, “Memory Remains: 9/11 Artifacts at Hangar 17,” (Washington DC: National Geographic, 2011), 92-97.

Reprinted by arrangement with the National Geographic Society from the book “Memory Remains, 9/11 artifacts At Hangar 17.” Copyright © 2011 by the National Geographic Society.

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