Reflections on 9/11: Memory is not static

I remember my classmates in elementary school getting pulled out of class to go home throughout the day on Sept. 11, but I didn't know what was going on. In the immediate moment, I had no sense of context, only a vague sense that something scary was happening.

Since I was only 11, the explanation I got from my parents was very simple: A few terrible people had killed thousands of innocent Americans in an act of pure evil. I felt extremely angry; I actually created a rocket out of the geometric puzzle pieces we were using in school. I outlined it, colored it in, and wrote, "To Osama bin Laden. From the USA."

I wanted to see a violent retaliation. I had internalized a simple story of good and evil, closing the story off from all other context. I try not to be too hard on myself about this; after all, I was a child.  

Over the last 10 years I have matured, and when I honestly reflect on my memories, I realized the immaturity of my thoughts and feelings and strive to see through a wider lens now.

I believe my maturity is for the better. There is value in questioning my previously conceived narratives about Sept. 11, and I think there is value in the country as a whole looking critically at our collective narratives about the day.

In the moments immediately following the attacks, most of us were in a state of vagueness; we lacked explanation, we lacked the "why." In our immaturity relative to the event, many of us filled this absence with surprise.  

The violence was accounted for by totally unfounded evil. While I would not suggest that the people who killed thousands of Americans on Sept. 11 had good reason for doing what they did, I would say that they certainly had reasons of some kind. Sept. 11, 2001 was a point on the continuum of history, existing as a day of events inextricably embedded within dozens of levels of context.

The noblest way for us to remember the Americans who died on that day is to realize the project of reasonable democracy that defines America. A necessary attribute of this reasonable democracy is that it be sufficiently self-reflective and wide-reaching in its vision. We must not look merely on the deaths, but the contexts informing the actions leading up to the deaths. At our best, our democracy is able to make decisions that situate America in a global context rather than in a self-contained bubble.

America at its best is also able to acknowledge when it's wrong. Rather than hate, it is nobler to love in memory of our fallen Americans. We must be mature and honest enough to acknowledge that Muslims in America have been grossly mistreated over the last decade. Telling our fellow Americans to "go back home" after they've lived their entire lives here lends to an over-simplified and immature narrative that is not representative of the "American Way."

We're better than that, and in memory of those who died we ought to strive to be our most noble. After all, tragedy makes heroes, and heroes live in memory.