What would you rather not be able to remember or not be able to forget? Last week, Joe Krakoff wrote of Columbia’s lack of recognition for the 11th anniversary of September 11 (“Do we remember 9/11?” Sept. 17). It’s been 10 days and yet his words linger in my mind—I, too, was taken aback by the lack of recognition around me. I was then further taken aback by the very fact that I noticed and felt so strongly about it.
Eleven years ago, I was in no way directly affected by 9/11. It remains a blur in my mind: an early school dismissal, teary-eyed teachers, and news channels showing the same video sequence over and over again. My only noteworthy interaction with 9/11 occurred during a senior-year English elective focused on trauma and memory.
Through this course, I arrived at a powerful realization: Trauma isn’t defined by the visceral and violent. Those qualities amplify a traumatic experience, but the true agony lies in psychological trauma. The piercing of skin, outpouring of hot blood, the rapid blood-clotting, and the eventual tender scar—this entire chain of events has a qualitative counterpart that occurs on a figurative level. This is because psychological trauma affects our normal mind-set and most basic way of understanding the world.
As Krakoff mentioned, 9/11 ushered in the nation’s transition from invincibility to vulnerability, and the methods by which people heal from that trauma is an important debate. Witnesses and survivors of 9/11 speak of that second when their entire world changed. It was not simply a shift from a renowned skyline to a gaping hole. It was a transition more devastating than the shift from power and prosperity to rubble that smoldered for up to 100 days after the tragedy.
The pre- and post-9/11 world is defined by a shift in the American psyche from the comprehensible to the incomprehensible.
“Incomprehensible” refers to those things that we cannot understand, and with regard to trauma and memory, those things can paradoxically contradict each other. The incomprehensibility of 9/11 is the terror-inducing image of billowing smoke dotted with jumpers. It is also the immense courage, selflessness, and honor that defined many peoples’ final moments and continue to define the legacy of 9/11. It is the impossible mingling of tragedy and beauty.
Up until my course, I too craved recognition of this incomprehensibility in the form of interviews with witnesses and survivors, or archives of photographs of that day and its aftermath. Emails from school officials and moments of silence felt comforting because they allowed me to convince myself that we were not forgetting, and that we were honoring. However, those forms of commemoration do not fully acknowledge September 11, 2001.
They recognize the event, but not the underlying trauma. For example, politicization is an inevitable effect of national trauma, but fixating on 9/11 through that lens trivializes the underlying trauma and invites a dangerous blame-game into the picture. Trauma and tragedy instead need to be understood for what they are: strategic attacks against our collective consciousness. The issue, however, is not how we understand trauma, but how we memorialize or honor it.
One of the reasons we can’t or don’t appropriately memorialize trauma is because of a subconscious trait that we all possess: the human fascination with the incomprehensible. Not only are we aware of our attraction to things we can’t understand, we are also deeply disturbed by that realization. The apparent lack of recognition last Tuesday does not undermine Columbia as an academic institution or a vessel of cultural memory—it exemplifies how we use superficial memorialization to simplify our relationship with the incomprehensible.
As an intellectual community, Columbia does not only need to strive to understand 9/11 but also must understand our tendency to memorialize trauma in a counterproductive way. By taking the focus away from 9/11, I am not trying to undermine or disrespect the gravity of the event. We must understand that we are drawn to the incomprehensible, disgusted by that very fascination, and yet obsessed with appropriately memorializing the trauma nonetheless. It is not in doing so but in understanding why we do so, that we truly honor the place of 9/11 in our cultural memory.
Columbia does not need to remember 9/11 because it is a great university in a great city. People need to remember 9/11 because in doing so they embrace incomprehensibility, and become more engaged, empathetic, and thoughtful members of humanity.
The author is a School of Engineering and Applied Science first-year.
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