Love of All Wisdom

The value of forgetting

by on Sep.11, 2011, under Anger, Buddhism, Patient Endurance, Politics, Tranquility

Ten years ago today, my first wife and I were in the process of moving into our new unfurnished student apartment in Cambridge, Massachusetts. We had rented a moving truck and driven over to the house of a friend, who had generously offered us an old piece of furniture. My wife rang the bell and we waited a minute or two. Then my friend came running down the stairs, slightly flustered and dishevelled. “I’m sorry I took so long,” she said, panting a little. “I was watching the news.”

“The… news?” We looked at each other.

“Oh my God, you haven’t heard! Two planes crashed into the World Trade Center. It’s collapsed.”

Two planes!” I said. “Then it must have been deliberate.”

“Yeah, they think it’s Osama bin Laden.”

“Huh,” I said. “Wow.” I paused for a few seconds, saying “Wow” and “Huh” a few more times. Then I shrugged my shoulders and said “Well, let’s get back to moving.”

This was not, I would soon learn, the way most Americans reacted to the same news.

To me, a terrorist attack, like a hurricane or a famine, was a sad event that needed to be dealt with appropriately; it just wasn’t earth-shaking. In the previous decade alone, there had already been a successful international terrorist attack against the US in the African embassy bombings. There had already been an international terrorist attack on American soil when bin Laden had previously tried to bomb the World Trade Center. And there had already been a successful terrorist attack on American soil in Oklahoma City. Why then was it such a big surprise when there was a successful international terrorist attack on American soil? These things happen. Of course they are terrible tragedies, and we should try our best to stop them, but I didn’t see why such an event would be an earth-shattering surprise.

But the seemingly unanimous reaction across the US media, and even people we spoke to, was: this is the day that everything changed. And everything did indeed change – but because of people’s reactions to the event, more than the event itself. The media spoke of nothing else. The economy plunged into recession from the disruption of confidence. Suddenly 90% of the American population declared its approval for the malicious and ignorant George W. Bush. And brown-skinned foreigners were no longer welcome. According to FBI data, there was a 1600-percent spike in hate crimes against people perceived to be Muslim – whether or not they were. Balbir Singh Sodhi was murdered for being a Sikh and therefore looking like a Muslim. These things I saw on the news were confirmed in a smaller way by my personal experience. That week I called a taxi on the phone, waited a few minutes, and saw a cab from the company I called drive up to me on the street. As soon as the driver saw my brown-skinned body waiting for him, he kept going past me quickly, pulled into a parking lot, turned around and sped off the other way. It was one of the very few incidents in my lucky and privileged life where I have unambiguously felt myself to be a victim of racism.

This was the world of 9/12 – the darkest, lowest ebb to which American political culture has sunk in my living memory. What stung considerably worse was the way many Americans in the media would repeatedly describe it all as their country’s finest hour, the time to be held out for emulation. That claim still gets made now – and while one might expect that kind of behaviour from Glenn Beck, today one can hear no less than Barack Obama recalling a supposed spirit of generosity, compassion and unity at the time. If there was indeed an outpouring of generosity and compassion in 2001, I didn’t experience it. A spirit of unity was there indeed – in that nearly the whole country lining up to endorse the man who brought us the Iraq war, government-sanctioned torture, free environmental destruction and frivolous tax breaks for millionaires. It was this context that gave rise to the ’00s, the decade of powerlessness, when the country I lived in repeatedly expressed its confidence in the man I most hated.

But for that very reason, the ’00s were also a time for deep reflection for me – the time in which I became anti-political, when I realized the way politics so easily leads to a hatred that scars one’s heart, with the help of Śāntideva and a Goenka retreat. And while I am afraid that some of the mental scars I felt living in that time will not heal, I hope that some of them have.

English-speaking North Americans typically have a hard time understanding the ethnic conflicts that fill so many places in the rest of the world. It’s difficult for us to see why Serbs and Croats, say, would start slaughtering each other after long years of relative peace – sometimes even killing each other over events that happened hundreds of years ago. But it seems to me that in those days following September 2001, many Americans began acting in a very similar way. For all around in those days, even in liberal Cambridge, one could spot bumper stickers and T-shirts and posters speaking that most chilling of slogans: “9/11/01 – NEVER FORGET.”

It is a good thing to look at a tragic or horrific event and say “never again,” work to prevent similar events from happening in the future. But “never forget?” That is surely what Hutus told each other about Tutsis, the credo of the Irish Protestants and Catholics who continued fighting the Troubles. Remember the terrible things that they have done to us. Hold that horrible memory in your heart, so that you can preserve your hatred. Even if the war ends in the outside world, you must keep fighting it in your heart. Remember, and hate.

And yet. Ten years later, it is remarkable just how little of “9/11″ remains in American public consciousness, considering how ten years ago people seemed to speak of nothing else. The agenda of the “Tea Party” seems about as bad to me now as Bush’s did then, but that agenda has nothing whatever to do with terrorism; and the other side is fighting back. Even the media discussion of this major anniversary has so far been relatively restrained. The main visible legacy of the attacks is the ever-more-elaborate security ordeal one now faces to board an airplane; and while one might well debate how necessary or useful that procedure is, it at least has the stated purpose of preventing future attacks, not of preserving the memory of the past one.

Americans, in short, have started to forget. And it’s a wonderful thing. There’s a certain pragmatism that is characteristically American: let’s get on with business, let’s just get things done. That spirit seemed to be suspended in 2001, when everything ground to a halt – in stark contrast to the London bombings, where Brits carried on with business as usual. But it’s back. 9/12, at long last, is over.

Mostly, anyway. I know the memory of that era still lives on in my spirit – I’m still easily angered when I think about what the United States became in the early ’00s. The irony of writing a commemorative post to praise forgetting is not lost on me. But I hope that this post serves as something of a spiritual exercise, a sort of reminding, for me and for others who may have reacted to the ’00s USA in something like the way I did. I find it admirable that Americans have mostly left behind attempts to keep alive their memories of 9/11’s horrors. I want to try to do the same with my own memory of 9/12.

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16 Comments for this entry

  • michael reidy

    The Irish have a great way of keeping up the bitterness, annual elaborate commemorations. American please note.

    • Amod Lele

      Yes. That’s exactly what I’m worried about. It seems like that sort of thing has not been happening in the US, which is quite encouraging; I had expected that it would.

  • Ben

    Suddenly 90% of the American population declared its approval for the malicious and ignorant George W. Bush.

    I think it’s important to recall the timeline here: GWB was a new president, less than a year since his election. He had not yet done most (any?) of the hugely polarizing things of his presidency. 9/11 did not suddenly make people approve of a warmongering and torturing presidency; he was neither of those things yet, at the time. Personally, I sometimes wonder whom else GWB might have been, if 9/11 had not arisen to shape the course of his presidency.

    • Jesse

      I remember what he was before 9/11 quite clearly. A useless, weak president with plummeting popularity ratings across the board.

      Too weak to take his foolish economic ideas and turn them into reality, it was clear that he was shaping up to be a nameless one-term-er that no-one was going to remember in 10 years time.

      The came 9/11, empowering him dramatically despite his pathetic speech following the event – then the tragic comedy of errors he pursued for years thereafter, while his advisers manipulated his policy in order to help them loot the country in its time of ordeal.

  • Ryan McMahon

    Great post, Amod. I’ll have to add your blog to my rotation.

  • JimWilton

    Great post. It can be argued that forgetting is necessary to see the world with fresh eyes.

    And remembering, as you point out, is a key element of all war mongering. “Remember the Maine!”

  • Ethan Mills

    Nice points. There is something ironic about the feeling of wanting to forget 9/11 but not the terrible years of the Bush administration. Maybe the key is to remember in a way that helps you move on, to do what you can to prevent future terrors, but to let go of hatred and bitterness – although perhaps only an arhant or bodhisattva can really do that! But we can do something. For instance, my fellow American citizens should vote next November. Unfortunately, a lot of American liberals seem to have forgotten George Bush in the midst of all their whining about Obama. Obama’s far from ideal, but in this case the lesser of two evils is a hell of a lot less evil (Bachmann and Perry are even more terrifying than Bush, Romney slightly less so). This would be one reason to remember the Bush years.

    • Amod Lele

      Good points as well, Ethan, and they get at a very important point I didn’t have space to speak of above: the difference between “never forget” and “never again.” I find something very admirable about the latter: to keep an incident’s memory alive enough to prevent it from happening in the future. But never once, in ten years of living in this country after 9/11, have I ever seen a bumper sticker or T-shirt saying “9/11/01: NEVER AGAIN.” And that’s emblematic of something – while there have been attempts to prevent future terrorist attacks, prevention did not seem at the forefront of the country’s consciousness of the event. As I’ve understood the reaction, there was much less “How can we stop something like this from happening again?” and more “Our national honour has been assaulted.” Thus allowing the reaction of hitting back, of lashing out, of punishing, which seems to be part of what made people think that the invasion of Iraq was even remotely a good idea.

  • elisa freschi

    Thanks for the post and the comments. I think an interesting balance might be the one hinted at by the Latin verb for “to forgive”, i.e., ignoscere. This can be understood as deriving from in+gnoscere, that is “knowing deeply”, since once you know from within why something has happened, you will also be able to let it go. In short, I would not recommend forgetfulness —this has lead to terrible mistakes throughout the history of mankind. Rather, what about a thorough knowledge of what has happened and of what was at stake, one that will enable you to dismiss your meaningless hatred and do something constructive instead (be it working for the integration of Muslim people or move a bed)?

    • skholiast

      Fine post, Amod, and thanks esp. to Elisa for this comment. As I remarked in my post riffing on this, I think what has really happened is not forgetting but “moving on,” not on the part of the culture but on the part of the commercial interests which dictate the topics of the “national conversation.” Far better if we would “know deeply,” but I fear this is not what we’ve done in this case. In fact despite the “never forget” rhetoric, I believe we’d like nothing better than to forget. It’s easier.

    • Amod Lele

      An important point, Elisa. I struggle with it a bit. Does knowing something from within really mean letting it go? Sometimes, when you research someone’s motivations and probe them more deeply, you find that they really were trying to get themselves more material wealth – when they already had plenty – at the expense of innocents whom they viewed as lesser. I don’t think that this is the case for Osama bin Laden, who spent his last days hiding out in relatively sparse circumstances, or for the Americans with the “Never forget” bumper stickers. But it does seem likely to be the case for Dick Cheney, from what I have seen; understanding him from within makes me feel less likely to want to let his crimes go.

  • JimWilton

    Isn’t Elisa’s point the reason for all philosophy? Wisdom frees us from limited, self-centered viewpoints and liberates us. Forgiveness requires wisdom — it has to see the depth of wrongdoing or evil or it could only be partial forgiveness. And it has to be a gift — Christians, I think, would view it as an approximation of grace.

    I don’t think it is a matter of letting crimes go — but just seeing what is effective and needed in a situation. Retribution for crimes is always based on an emotion of hatred and is never an expression of wisdom. But action to prevent harm — or punishment as a deterrent or method for changing behavior could be an expression of wisdom. Motivation is most important. But seeing clearly what needs to be done (intelligence) and being willing to do it (exertion) is also necessary.

    The point is that forgiveness isn’t a wimpy, weak thing. It requires great strength of mind to sit with the emotions that evil engenders and great insight to see the complete person who engaged in the evil act. And forgiveness doesn’t let the evil doer off the hook. It simply creates a door (based on wisdom) that they can walk through if they want to get out of hell.

    A lot of Christian images in this post. But by hell — I just mean the state of mind that evil action creates in the actor.

  • elisa freschi

    Thank you, Jim, I could not have agreed more.

    @ Amod, I think that the point is the difference between a rational judgement and an emotional reaction (although I also deem the latter to be loosely related to the former). You could understand Dick Cheney’s motivation and condemn them (if they are as you say, they surely deserve a severe censure, possibly also a legal punishment) without needing to react emotionally against them. The emotional reaction probably damages you and makes it less likely for Dick Cheney (or one’s relatives or children or colleagues) to be able to understand that they did something wrong and to learn from that.

    • Amod Lele

      Good points from both of you.

      I might continue to endorse forgetting as a practical matter. I do think that most people in the world have frighteningly strong desires for blood and revenge; I think Americans have this more than many other cultures, but the difference is of degree and not of kind. In such a context, while collective forgetting may not be as good as a genuine understanding, it’s much more likely to actually take place, and so I’m quite comfortable with it.

      But that point doesn’t let me off the hook here. Throughout the writing of this blog I have tried to be more concerned with personal life and practice than with politics. And from that standpoint you are right. We may want to build a world where Cheney can be brought to justice and tried for his crimes so they cannot happen again, one that censures the Cheneys enough to make it difficult for them to continue in their ways. But that is very different from holding a desire for punishment in our hearts, being bloodthirsty and vengeful ourselves. That’s what I argued myself here, and you’re right to call me on it.

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