15 years after the 9-11-2001 attack on New York that left some 3,000 Americans dead and 4 years after the 9-11-2012 attack on a US diplomatic mission in Benghazi left four dead including a US ambassador it’s time for a look back. As to what difference this may make, George Santayana advises “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
Why Remember 9-11-2001 and 9-11-2012,
What Difference Can It Make?
Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. When change is absolute there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible improvement: and when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
In the first stage of life the mind is frivolous and easily distracted; it misses progress by failing in consecutiveness and persistence. This is the condition of children and barbarians, in whom instinct has learned nothing from experience.
In a second stage men are docile to events, plastic to new habits and suggestions, yet able to graft them on original instincts, which they thus bring to fuller satisfaction. This is the plane of manhood and true progress.
Last comes a stage when retentiveness is exhausted and all that happens is at once forgotten; a vain, because unpractical, repetition of the past takes the place of plasticity and fertile readaptation.
In a moving world readaptation is the price of longevity. The hard shell, far from protecting the vital principle, condemns it to die down slowly and be gradually chilled; immortality in such a case must have been secured earlier, by giving birth to a generation plastic to the contemporary world and able to retain its lessons. Thus old age is as forgetful as youth, and more incorrigible; it displays the same inattentiveness to conditions; its memory becomes self-repeating and degenerates into an instinctive reaction, like a bird’s chirp.
George Santayana in the Life of Reason
Santayana looks at three situations: no memory of the past and hence no ability to learn, memory of past events coupled with an ability to try new things such that learning can take place, and memory of the past but no ability to try new things such that we become increasingly maladapted to a changing world.
I am suggesting that we try to stick to the middle way: a clear memory of past events coupled with the willingness to try new things. This won’t bring any of the dead back but it will save future lives, pain, and suffering.
The Fight For The Future After 9-11
“I never thought the term GWOT was particularly apt. The phrase “War for the Terms of Modernity” appeared in a 2008 column of mine. It drew on a November 2001 essay that framed al-Qaida’s 9-11 attacks as operations in a “fight for the future.” To my mind, both phrases recognize we are engaged in a long-term cultural struggle, with struggle meaning a systemic conflict far more comprehensive than a war.
So we confront religious-totalitarian enemies who wage a cultural struggle. Religious-totalitarian is an accurate description. In al-Qaida and ISIS, absolutist religious doctrines seamlessly entwine with murderous dictatorial political systems. Muslims who dispute their doctrines and methods are subject to slaughter as apostates. Their extremist dictates justify their heinous deeds as they pursue their utopian goal — the Caliphate, a modern revival of a Deity-sanctioned past. Indeed, the Seventh century with cell phones, Islamist internet chat rooms, nuclear weapons and smart bombs: that sketches their terms of modernity. Pathological? They’re dead set on killing you to achieve it.
If we are to prevail in this struggle, America and its allies must have the wisdom and resolve to ensure individual dignity and individual freedom secured by the rule of law are the fundamental tenets of 21st century modernity. We must also dedicate ourselves to the sustained, comprehensive defense of these tenets, using moral, intellectual, legal, economic and military means.
Bay’s closing paragraph sums up my sense of the challenge in front of us. Friedrich Nietzsche warned: “He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster. And if you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.”
9-11-2001: Fifteen Years Is A Long Time
“Fifteen years is a long time. You only have to read the stories of the children left orphaned by 9-11 to realize how much time has passed. Kids so young that they barely remember their firefighter fathers are graduating from college. After a decade and a half, we seem to be reverting to a pre-attack mindset. One thing that the Colin Kaepernick brouhaha has exposed is just how conflicted many Americans remain about our fundamental goodness as a nation. Are we as virtuous as we think we are? It’s a question tied directly to the one that was on most people’s minds in the days following 9-11: What did we do to deserve this?
We did nothing to deserve it. The people who went to work in those towers that morning did nothing to deserve the instant obliteration that was their fate. The firefighters and police who selflessly and reflexively responded to the call did nothing to deserve what befell them. The passengers on those planes, and the flight crews that were mercilessly slaughtered, did nothing to deserve to have their lives extinguished in a terrifying instant.
More than that, however, we, the United States of America, did nothing to deserve it. Throughout its short history, this nation has tried to spread liberty in the world, to oppose tyranny, to advance freedom, to promote prosperity, to be a beacon of hope to the oppressed, the mistreated, and the huddled masses yearning to breathe free. No nation, our own included, is without sin; but no other nation is what the United States is. In Lincoln’s words, we are the last best hope of Earth.
Nothing will heal the invisible wounds of 9-11. For those who lived through it, the panic and despair of that terrible morning is never far from the surface. The memories are easily summoned. Those who remember will grieve on this anniversary much as they did on the first anniversary and much as they will decades hence. But we must never lose sight of the truth: we are not the enemy.
A good friend of mine got married today, on 9-11. One of the readings included Corinthians 13:4-7, “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.” I think that is a useful summary of the mindset we need to maintain to win “the war for the future.”
Related Blog Posts
- Pearl Harbor to 9-11 to the Panopticon
- Lee Harris’ Insights on What 9-11 Means
- Second Sight: A Meditation on Silicon Valley and 9-11
- Remembering 9-11: Our Children Will Also Live in Interesting Times
- Take a Minute To Remember 11 Years Ago
- Remembering What Happened
- Take a Minute To Remember 9 Years Ago
- Take a Minute to Recall 8 Years Ago, Part 2
- Take a Minute to Recall 8 Years Ago
- Lesser Sons of Greater Fathers
- Austin Bay has applied “the war for terms of modernity” not only to the conflict with fundamentalist Islam but also disagreements with China and Russia.
Photo Credit Wikipedia “September 11 Attacks”