In the recent controversy over whether the National September 11 Memorial & Museum ought to carry on this year with the annual traditions of reading the names of people who died during the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and the Tribute in Light, both sides were certain in their assumptions. Those who favored cancelling the events felt it was an urgent matter of public safety, in the wake of the greatest heath crisis in a century. Critics were sure that those who resolved to call off the observances were trying to save cash, while cynically hiding behind lofty pronouncements about the common good.
But what if both sides are wrong? What if this was, instead, a half-conscious, instinctive attempt at gently, incrementally stepping away from horror and sadness? What if the decision was a form of forgetting on the installment plan?
Is it ever appropriate or beneficial to forget moments of transformative horror? Scenes like a toddler confined to pediatric wheel chair, left alone in harm’s way by an adult who was made a split-second decision to save other, easy-to-carry children? Moments of bewildering terror like being shrouded in an oily miasma that swallowed all sound and light—a blizzard of debris that you intuitively knew, even at that moment, contained the pulverized, particulate remnants of thousands?
Photo: Robert Simko
Deep within the National September 11 Memorial & Museum, 8,000 unidentified fragments of those remains are entombed behind a wall, on which is emblazoned a quote from Virgil: “No day shall erase you from the memory of time.” It is unclear whether days of solemn remembrance amount to an injunction or an invitation to heretical questions, but here are two: Really? And why?
In the events recalled above, the fog dissipated, and the disabled child was reunited (unscathed) with her family. But to have witnessed and lived through such things changes you, in ways you did not ask for. Among these changes is an ongoing, unwelcome meditation on questions like, “what do we owe to the fallen?” And, “how do you balance the obligation to remember against the right to forget?”
The “forgetting curve” is a theory about the transience of episodic memories. It examines how, each time a memory is activated, it is then re-recorded in the brain. So our ability to remember is—somewhat counter-intuitively—not very much like taking a paper out of a filing cabinet and then putting it back until we need it next. Instead, it is more akin to taking that paper out of the drawer, looking it over, and then transcribing a new copy by hand (with a few errors and omissions, plus a couple of shortcuts and abbreviations), before we file the facsimile and throw the original away. Each new iteration becomes a slightly less precise, softer-focus replica of the one that came before.
Photo: Bill Hartford
That metallic cone wedged between two steel columns and flung into a parking lot looked very much like a jet engine, but might have been a piece of air conditioning equipment. And that wide, dark smudge on the pavement could have come from any kind of moisture. Right?
Within living memory, the anniversaries of Pearl Harbor and the assassination of President Kennedy were major national observances, which became slightly quieter and more modest each year. A generation ago, the days marking the end of World War Two in Europe and the Pacific were solemn occasions that evoked a profoundly personal response from millions. Now all of those milestones have taken on a character closer to what World War One was for people coming of age in the 1970s—episodes of recent history that are more historic than recent.
Children who fled from Lower Manhattan kindergarten classrooms 19 Septembers ago are now contemplating having families of their own. Then-newly married couples, who scrambled to save infants and toddlers, are today looking forward to grandchildren.
Next year, the twentieth anniversary of September 11, 2001 will necessarily be a return to form. But in the years that follow, we appear likely to continue our journey along the arc of forgetfulness. When wounds heal, they become less visible. When pain subsides, its source drifts from anamnesis to amnesia.
And as the alluvial march of days washes over us rhythmically, endlessly, and tides of memory swell and recede, we are both inundated and marooned. So we fight to recall, while longing to forget.
Photo: Robert Simko
Photo: Robert Simko
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Family members of 9/11 victims will gather on the 9/11 Memorial plaza while adhering to state and federal guidelines regarding social distancing and public gatherings.
Finding Recovery in the Shadow of 9/11: Stories from a Child Survivor
New York Adventure Club
On September 11, 2001, 12-year-old Helaina Hovitz — who lived only blocks from the Twin Towers — had just arrived at her local middle school in lower Manhattan. The images, footage, events, and experiences that are now common knowledge to everyone were a very real part of Helaina’s life, which unfolded in real time as she fled from the collapse and returned to her home in what was now a war zone. There are people around the world, and even New York City, who aren’t aware of the way children and families were impacted that day. And in the months and years that followed, severe and long-term damage was inflicted on the hundreds of thousands of people living and working in the area that day. This is the story of one girl’s experience living in the shadow of the attacks, and her journey to recovery.
Special program, presented in partnership with the Transportation Institute and the New York Council Navy League, to hear firsthand stories from the Coast Guard and maritime industry personnel who took part in the 9/11 Boatlift. As tragedy unfolded on September 11, 2001, ordinary Americans did what Americans do at their best — they answered the call to help their fellow citizens. With Lower Manhattan streets blocked and the subways closed, crowds built up along accessible points of the shoreline. Captains and crew of the ferries already in the area, assisted by NYPD, started loading passengers to bring them to safety. With that, the largest maritime evacuation in history began.
Tribute in Light
9/11 Memorial & Museum
Tribute in Light, two huge columns of lights beaming upward from a location near the World Trade Center site, is the commemorative public art installation first presented six months after 9/11 and then every year thereafter, from dusk to dawn, on the night of September 11.
Let There Be Light
On-Again, Off-Again Decision about Tribute in Light Revives Calls for National Parks to Manage September 11 Memorial
The recent controversy over the planned cancellation of the Tribute in Light (the twin beams of illumination that rise skyward from Lower Manhattan on the anniversary of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001) has led to renewed calls by community leaders for the National September 11 Memorial & Museum to be taken over by the federal government, and operated by the National Park Service (NPS).
The most recent dispute arose in August, when the Memorial announced that it was cancelling both the Tribute in Light and the annual reading of names that commemorates each life lost during the attacks. Both of these moves were characterized as public-safety measures, in the response to the ongoing pandemic coronavirus. To read more…
Photo: Robert Simko
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Get Out on the Water
from North Cove
Need a safe and breezy break from your apartment? Several cruise operators have reopened in North Cove and are offering opportunities to get out on the water, including Tribeca Sailing, Ventura, and Classic Harbor Line. All cruise operators are adhering to social distancing guidelines; check individual websites for details.