Forgetting and Remembering

September 11th, 2013, 12:06pm IST

I woke up later than I meant to this morning – despite how much time I give myself to sleep here, I never seem to fully take advantage of it. There are too many exciting things to be doing and thinking about, both related to my present and future. Despite knowing I was going to be late to work, I turned on my internet just to see if there were any important e-mails I would need to address that day, or any pressing news about Syria. Inevitably, I wandered over to Facebook, and greeting me was a picture of the twin towers set against an American-flag-patterned sky and a status update saying “Never Forget”.

I checked the date, thinking it couldn’t be 9/11 already – I had just gotten back to India. I knew my birthday was sometime next week (the 19th!) Apparently I had forgotten one of the most important days in our nations recent history, and one that the next generation will read about in history books (if they even use paper for books in the future). But living outside the United States will do that to you. I forgot my mother’s birthday this past year (which I made up for in spades with a hilarious card and flowers) because I was busy saying goodbye to friends here and was studying for a statistics exam and the GRE and was generally overloaded with life. The present is so all-consuming in India in the most wonderful way, and it the primary reason I haven’t been blogging much this year. (The other reason is that pictures take SO LONG to upload, but I will try not to let that be the reason I don’t blog anymore).

There have been exactly three times when I have been living abroad since August 2010 that I have wanted to go home. The first time was in October 2010 in Indonesia when I got really stomach sick for the first time in my life and I was certain I had something much more serious than Suharto’s Revenge. The second time was on and around May 2nd, 2011, when Osama bin Laden was assassinated. I had a lot of conflicting feelings about how he was killed and his burial and so did the majority of the Muslim community in which I lived. My anger and frustration and initial disagreements with those who had grown to be my Indonesian family made me want to hole up in my room and watch something inane, like Anchorman. Eventually, this lead to a further understanding of my friends and Indonesian family concerning religion and politics and the conservations I had surrounding that day were some of the most honest and chilling of my life. Only through talking through my differences with my community was I able to get over my anger and mitigate my isolation. The third time was on and around April 20th, 2013, the day the Boston Marathon was bombed, which I discuss possibly too extensively here. On those three days, all I wanted to do was to beam myself home to be able to be with people who, even without talking, knew exactly what I was going through because they were experiencing it themselves (minus the getting sick part).

On September 11th, 2001, I was also relatively far from home. I was in a forest in New Hampshire, a few days into a two-week orientation program called Bivouac for high school. I had turned in my cell phone and hadn’t even bothered to bring my laptop, as there was no internet to be found. I had just gotten back from watching some boys throw axes into a nearby tree (which was definitely against the rules – I forget how they managed that) when the emergency bell sounded. This meant we had to drop everything and run up the hill to the common meeting place. This was in the afternoon, several hours after the planes hit the Twin Towers. While most kids my age were sitting in front of TV monitors watching the events unfold live or near to that, we huddled around our staff who had one black and white printout of the news between them and very scattered information about what had happened. As they told us about the planes hitting the Twin Towers, some of us actually laughed, completely incredulous. Some people asked to see pictures. I remembered that my Dad was scheduled to fly to New York from Boston that morning, and panicked. After several attempts to contact my dad to no avail, I called my Mom, who told me his flight never took off. That night, we sat around a campfire saying nothing, exhausted from analyzing the little information we had, just watching the flames, occasionally attempting to talk about anything other than 9/11. After I came home a week later, I watched the footage of the planes hit the towers once, and never wanted to see them again. In some ways, I’m glad I was far from a TV or the internet when the planes hit – those images are not burned into my brain, perhaps like some other Americans.

I have two friends from the US here and one new one who just arrived. At the end of today, I will be texting them to ask if they remembered it’s September 11th today. I want to know what it means for Americans to still remember 9/11.

September 15th, 2:10 pm IST

It turns out that none of us remembered it was 9/11 until we went on Facebook, where other people reminded us, or checked our usual news websites, where the reminder to remember started. That night, we all gathered for some drinks and appetizers at a friends house to welcome new volunteers to Jagori – Cassie, an AIF fellow from New Jersey; Heather, studying abroad through UChicago; Kiran and I, new (and old?) Shansi fellows; and my friend Vasu, from Delhi, who had recently stopped working full time at Jagori to become a volunteer. We asked if the war on terror had netted us any gains, and questioned whether striking Syria would lead us anywhere. We talked about ways to prevent terrorism and if hate can ever really be snuffed out for good. We talked about Kashmir and border conflicts in India, wondering if one country can learn from the other country’s mistakes in time to stop making their own. We questioned the phrasing around 9/11 of remembering fallen heroes when neither of us could recall names or even how many people died that day as a result of the plane crashes or the rescue efforts involved. We instead thought that remembering the stories of the heroes and the events of the day would be enough to honor the dead and to acknowledge the ways in which our country was scarred that day. I’m not sure what good it does to tell people to “Never Forget” 9/11 – it is unlikely that our nation could forget the events, and that people who lost loved ones would ever naturally forget 9/11. If the point of never forgetting leads to something productive, like collaborating with other countries to share information on known terrorists, or sharing counter-terrorism strategies with other like-minded countries, or creating education programs or cultural exchange programs that attempt to halt terrorism before it begins, then I am all for remembering. If remembering is a cathartic process that leads to emotional outpourings and remembering loved ones lost on that day, I supporting remembering 9/11. But I think it’s crucial to question why we’re remembering. If we’re remembering because we’re afraid that the fire of hatred that so many felt towards the perpetrators of the events of 9/11 (or the countries they came from or the religion they were followers of) will go out, then that’s not a healthy reason to remember. That aspect is 9/11 is one I hope our nation will work together to let go of, and perhaps even forget.

On 9/11, I reflected on the reasons to remember the events of that day, tell people I loved them, and wrote essays on why I would like to pursue a diplomatic career. I will personally never forget what happened on 9/11 – how could I? There’s nothing we can or should do to erase the memories we all have as a nation of that time and place, but as a nation, we should constantly be seeking ways to find community in tragedy and to channel our pain, frustration and anger into finding informed, productive and respectful ways to move forward. We should acknowledge when we are broken and seek help from without and within in putting ourselves back together, today and always. I am feeling very patriotic from so far away.


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