It is time to stop postponing the question of what collective memory of the kind that is being expressed in the tenth anniversary commemorations of 9/11 is actually good for, and what are its risks. In order to do this, one has to consider the morally or psycho-logically unpalatable possibility that at some times and in some contexts forgetting may actually be preferable to remembering. This is not a view that finds favor anywhere today, from the nationalist right to the human rights-driven left. Most decent people are for forgiving, but one is highly unlikely to hear many good words said in defense of forgetting. Perhaps we are all too influenced by George Santayana’s overly admired warning that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” – a sentence that ignores entirely the fact that history, like individual psychological behavior, is at least partly governed by what Freud called the unconscious chain of repetition. Perhaps we assume the ethical superiority of remembrance over forgetting because we have all been told so often that to remember is to be responsible while to forget is not only irresponsible but the very emblem of a fall into some species of moral cowardice or civic nihilism. After all, even Jesus enjoined his followers to forgive those who had trespassed against them, not to forget the affront altogether.
There is no getting around the fact that forgetting has been the ace in the hole of some of the worst people in history. Hitler asked the rhetorical question about who in 1939 remembered the mass slaughter of the Armenians by the Turks as proof that the Nazis could do anything they pleased without any risk. But remembrance does not just console; it can inflame as well. As a reporter during the Bosnian war, which was in large measure a conflict fueled by memory (or, more precisely, the inability to forget), I learned to hate, but above all to fear, collective historical memory. Remembrance can make history itself seem like nothing so much as an arsenal full of the weapons needed to keep wars going and peace tenuous. Will the remembrance of 9/11 have this effect when peace is less of a remote possibility? It is too soon to tell. As was demonstrated by the relief and exultation that erupted spontaneously in many parts of America when it was announced that Osama bin Laden had been killed, the wounds are still too raw. For now, at least, there can be no question of forgetting, or even of forgiveness. But if it is too soon to move toward either, surely it is not too early to ask the question of whether peace will ever be possible without eventually considering both. Even the work of mourning, essential as it is, must end if life is to go on.
Such a conviction may seem counterintuitive. And no one in his or her right mind would expect the loved ones of those who died on 9/11 to forget. Perhaps it is even too much to ask them to forgive. But if one should not demand forgetting and, on the tenth anniversary of the attacks, join in that sorrowful remembrance, sooner or later it must come. And no, forgiveness is not enough. Most wars do not end with one side gaining an absolute victory and thus being able to dictate the terms of the adversary’s physical as well as psychic surrender. The United States, France, Britain, and the Soviet Union could write the textbooks German schoolchildren used after Germany’s surrender. And in South Africa, the African National Congress’s understanding of that country’s history could be installed as the official narrative. But take Northern Ireland, or the former Yugoslavia. In both places, those who warred against one another continue to believe that they were right. And if they have kept the peace, it is not because they have forgiven one another but because, for all sorts of reasons specific to each conflict, most of them have decided to turn the page, which is a kind of forgetting. The long war against the jihadis will almost certainly end in a similarly ambiguous way, with an unhappy compromise that denies definitive victory to anyone. There will be no Japanese surrender in Tokyo Bay, no Nuremberg trials for the Taliban, no South African-style Truth and Reconciliation Commission in which Mullah Omar or Zawahiri or whoever is leading the Taliban by then will confess to his crimes in exchange for amnesty. In short, there will be no closing of accounts, and sooner or later we shall just have to learn to live with that fact.
In the meantime, we would do well to consider the possibility that if our societies were to expend even a fraction of the energy on forgetting that we now do on remembering, and if the option of forgetting were seen as at least as available as the duty of remembrance, then the peace that must come eventually might actually come sooner. It is an austere creed. The great South African author Nadine Gordimer once said that she thought writers should write as if they were already dead. To ask people to forgo remembrance, or at least to envisage that possibility, is in effect to ask people to act as if they were already dead. Will it ever be possible for us to give up the memory of our wounds? We had better hope so, for all our sakes. And after the commemoration ceremonies are over would be a good time to begin.
From After 9/11: The limits of remembrance
Harper’s Magazine, August 2011
Illustration by Art Spiegelman: cover of The New Yorker, 24 September 2001