“Never Forget”? 9/11 and the Ethics of Memory

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“Never Forget” is the most recognizable slogan connected to the 9/11 attacks. In the months and years following the attacks, the slogan was plastered on banners, bumper stickers, and billboards. The meaning seems clear, so much so that the slogan is not really debated or questioned in mainstream America. 

But is the meaning clear? After all, what–or who–are we supposed to remember? And how should we remember 9/11, particularly as we mark the twentieth anniversary of the attacks this year? It’s best to think of “Never Forget” less as a slogan with an obvious meaning and more as a question–or better yet, as a series of questions stemming from larger moral concerns about how we remember tragedy.

The most popular meaning of “Never Forget,” the meaning promoted in the media and by many politicians, is that we are supposed to remember and commemorate the nearly 3,000 people who died after al-Qaeda operatives turned planes into weapons of mass destruction and targeted some of America’s most iconic symbols, including the Pentagon and the World Trade Center. We are also supposed to remember:

  • The attack on our freedoms and values
  • The first responders who heroically rushed in to rescue people trapped in the burning and collapsing towers in Lower Manhattan
  • The military personnel who fought in the war on terror in Afghanistan and Iraq, including the over 7,000 US soldiers who died

All of this is worthy of our memory.

But it’s worth asking whether “Never Forget” is deployed in such a way that we are, in fact, encouraged to disregard some of the more troubling aspects of 9/11’s impact, aspects that do not reflect well on our nation, its policies, and its collective memory. In other words, as we are encouraged to “Never Forget,” are we also encouraged to redact, whitewash, or blot out from our collective memories the trauma and tragedy inflicted by the US government on hundreds of thousands of people around the world?

If we rethink what it means to “Never Forget,” if we honestly and courageously seek to remember who and what we are often encouraged to forget in the name of patriotism and national fervor, what we would encounter are troubling questions about the character of our nation and its larger commitments to human rights and dignity.

What would it mean for us to remember the following actions and outcomes arising from the US government’s response to the 9/11 attacks?

  • The more than 335,000 civilian casualties resulting from the war on terror
  • The 37 million refugees and internally displaced people in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan, among other countries
  • The heavy reliance by the US government on extraordinary renditions, or the extrajudicial process by which the government secretly captures and transfers individuals suspected of having connections to terrorist organizations to other countries in which they are detained (at times indefinitely) and sometimes tortured
  • The illegal and reprehensible torture of detainees in US military prisons (Guantánamo Bay, Abu Ghraib) and CIA black sites or secret prisons, including waterboarding, forced rectal feeding, rape, urinating on detainees, beating injured detainees, sleep deprivation, threats to detainees’ family and children
  • The unwarranted surveillance of Muslims, Muslim organizations, and prominent Muslim leaders by the FBI, the NYPD, and the NSA
  • The entrapment of dozens of Muslims in counterterrorism stings that involve paid FBI informants manufacturing terrorist plots and luring vulnerable people into these plots to create the illusion that the US government is winning the war on terror
  • The National Security Entry-Exit Registration System (NSEERS), established one year after the 9/11 attacks, which required men mostly from Muslim-majority countries to register with the US government and be photographed, fingerprinted, and interviewed
  • The more than 200 hundred bills introduced in state legislatures to limit reliance on religious law in state courts as part of a larger movement to ban “sharia law”
  • The Muslim ban, or the policy of prohibiting immigrants from Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States, that had its genesis in Donald Trump’s call as a presidential candidate in December 2015 for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States”
  • The anti-Muslim statements and proposals coming from presidential candidates since 9/11, including Muslim ID cards, a Muslim registration system, preventing Muslims from serving as president, calls to “patrol and secure Muslim neighborhoods,” and the insistence that “Islam hates us”
  • The surge in anti-Muslim hate crimes in the months following 9/11, the persistence of these hate crimes since 9/11 (which never dropped back to pre-9/11 levels), and the alarming resurgence of these hate crimes during the presidential campaign in 2015 and 2016 when they reached their highest levels since 9/11

These are not the events or episodes that have made their way onto bumper stickers or into campaign speeches or 9/11 commemoration services. It would be easy to forget all of these things in a rush to defend the memories of those who died on 9/11 or on the battlefield in Afghanistan and Iraq.

But we should not forget these more troubling aspects of our nation’s response to 9/11. Neglecting or forgetting these horrors disregards the very human rights that we so often proclaim as the backbone of this country. Such memories are undoubtedly difficult since they focus attention on America at its worst. Yet they are crucial if we are to come to terms with America’s violence, its human rights abuses, and the consequences of its all-too-zealous militarism. Remembering the pain, suffering, and injustices inflicted by our nation on many innocent people under the guise of national security is the least we can do twenty years after 9/11.

I offer these reflections on the impact and memory of 9/11 as a conversation-starter in our community. It’s a conversation I hope develops more robustly this fall as the Center for Ethics and Public Engagement (CEPE) sponsors programming on the theme of “9/11 and the Ethics of Memory.” The purpose of the programming is to wrestle with the larger moral questions connected to how we, individually and collectively, remember and commemorate 9/11. Which aspects of 9/11 and its impact are we encouraged to remember? Which aspects are we encouraged to downplay, dismiss, or disregard? Which stories, voices, and experiences should be privileged in our memorializing of 9/11, and why? How do we bridge the memory gap between older generations for whom 9/11 was lived history and younger generations, including many Luther students, who have no living memory of 9/11?

The CEPE is planning a variety of events to help the community tackle these questions, including:

  • A Zoom conversation with Victoria Christman and me on the impact of 9/11 on Muslims
  • A panel in which faculty members share their memories of 9/11 and its impact on their lives and career
  • A concert featuring music composed in response to 9/11
  • A candlelight vigil on the anniversary of 9/11
  • A guest Zoom lecture by James Yee, a Muslim and former US military chaplain who served Muslim detainees at the Guantánamo Bay detention camp and who was himself later charged by the US government with spying, espionage, aiding the enemy, mutiny, and sedition after he brought attention to torture and abuse at Guantánamo

These events will hopefully spark critical conversations at Luther about how we remember tragedy, and how our memories shape the stories we tell about ourselves, our communities, and our country.

Todd Green is associate professor of religion and co-director of the international studies program at Luther College. During the 2020-21 academic year, he served as the interim director of the college’s Center for Ethics and Public Engagement. His research focuses on Islamophobia, including the impact of 9/11 on Muslim minority communities in Europe and North America. His books on the topic include The Fear of Islam: An Introduction to Islamophobia in the West, and Presumed Guilty: Why We Shouldn’t Ask Muslims to Condemn Terrorism. 

Todd Green, Associate Professor of Religion

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  • September 8 2021 at 12:09 pm
    Gereon Kopf

    Thank you, Professor Green, for your important reflections on 9/11! I think Avishai Margalit's "The Ethics of Memory" (2002), which you evoke in the title of your essay, and Fumihiko Sueki's revisioning of Margalit's ideas in his "Religion and Ethics at Odds" (2016) (original:"Bukkyō vs rinri" [2006]) have given us powerful tools to understand the political dynamics and moral implications of what we chose to remember and how we remember it. 

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