Sifting the emotional truth of 9/11

September 11 memories and our civic and political life

Originally published at the Bangor Daily News.

As the 10 year anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks approached, two images recurrently came to my mind. In one, a woman, holding high heels, ran as a tower fell and dust and debris followed her path, ready to overtake her. And the other, a painting from decades before, Salvador Dali’s “The Persistence of Memory,” featured three folded, melting timepieces. This first was vivid and concrete, while the second suggested that memory is not solid but malleable.

Understanding memory is hard enough; knowing what to make of it for our political and civic lives is even harder.

That beautiful late summer day 10 years ago and the days and weeks following were a jumble of deep emotions, questions and shared experiences. The 9/11 attacks invested our nation and world with change, from the new security conditions most have come to accept, to a politics for a time focused on fear, to the immense resources spent, to two wars and their thousands of military and civilian deaths. That first year, those lost were recalled, with the New York Times publishing an incredibly moving series of stories about each of the victims.

Nearly all of us feel sure of the truth of our memories of the day. Researchers call this “flashbulb memory,” the intense memory of events for which we can all tell others where we were when we heard the news. An 1899 study concerned Lincoln’s assassination. However, people often misremember and 9/11 is no exception.

One day after, two psychologists at Duke University asked students to recount details of the day before, and then went back to them one, six or 32 weeks later. The details changed but the sense of certainty and vividness did not. Differences between memory and actuality should come as no surprise to anyone who has discussed family history at the Thanksgiving table. But somehow we expect memories of big, public events to be crystal clear.

Even more, collective memory of major events is not only not fixed, but is framed to support social and political perspectives. For instance, despite the proclamations of Confederate leaders that slavery and white supremacy were the “cornerstone” of its rebellion against the United States, some declare that the Civil War really had to do with states’ rights and that slavery was relatively unimportant. As novelist William Faulkner said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

But does it matter if our memories are accurate and stable? Personal memoirs and even biographies sometimes blur reality, with one writer saying he combined careful reporting with “emotional truth.”

Trying to understand events should take account of what led to them and followed. But doing so for 9/11 has been problematic. The National Museum of American History mounted an exhibit in September 2002 in which the telling started the moment the first plane hit and ended a few weeks later. Without broader context, it focused on individual stories and items — shoes, twisted metal, a bullhorn.

Not being able to look at failings and contexts marks a lack of intellectual and civic courage. All over the country, including in Maine, patriotic Muslims were sometimes harassed and worse. In American politics, just asking what motivated the terrorists was difficult for a time.

Investigations took place into poor management, including Mayor Giuliani’s placement of the terrorist response center at the World Trade Center and the sluggish response of the Bush White House to intelligence warnings in the summer of 2001, but it somehow seemed churlish to discuss these mistakes. We owe it to ourselves to be aware of what gave rise to the horrific events, blocked effective responses and led to the outcomes that followed.

Emotional truth seems a valid, even crucial, starting point for our nation, but it should not stop there. As our memories fade and shift, we also need civic maturity.

And so I hope that the woman with her shoes in her hands both ran away from horror and toward a future in which we openly and honestly grapple with the import of 9/11 and embrace mutual respect and care. This would be a living memorial worthy of those lost that terrible day.

Amy Fried

About Amy Fried

Amy Fried loves Maine's sense of community and the wonderful mix of culture and outdoor recreation. She loves politics in three ways: as an analytical political scientist, a devoted political junkie and a citizen who believes politics matters for people's lives. Fried is Professor of Political Science at the University of Maine. Her views do not reflect those of her employer or any group to which she belongs.