Op-ed: You New Yorkers: What the Greeks have to teach us about Memory and Unity in a Post-9/11 World

On one calm September morning in 2001, at 8:46 a.m., hijackers steered Flight 11 into the North Tower of the World Trade Center in New York City, followed by the crash of United Airlines Flight 175 into the South Tower, in what would become the single deadliest terrorist attack in human history, as well as the deadliest incident ever for firefighters and law enforcement in the United States. Bodies rained from the sky. One firefighter who witnessed the attack said, “I thought it was the end of the world,” (Winfrey, 2011).

When I went to the 9/11 Vigil at Ford Memorial Chapel this past Wednesday, I was expecting more people. I asked myself, “Where was I on this day in years past?” I couldn’t remember, but I know I wasn’t at the vigils. I was probably needlessly busy. Of those that were there, I noticed a tension in the air and in their words that spoke to the struggle to keep the event’s memory alive. 

“It’s not something that can be easily erased,” said a student who wished not to be named. The same student, who was 3 years old at the time of the attack, later admitted, “If it wasn’t for the fact of seeing my mother the way she was, I doubt I would even remember it myself.” His father had broken from his usual routine and not entered the World Trade Center that fateful day, a circumstance which “could have only have been a gift from God.” His mother, during the “very scary time” — six and a half hours — while his father was unreachable, “started hugging the radio trying to figure out whether or not she had a husband or not.”

The student has attended a number of 9/11 memorial events over the years, and testifies to their dwindling attendance in recent years. 

Another student, Ashley Vitiello, ’23, cites the elephant in the room, and the subject at the forefront of my mind: “We are the last group of people that were alive when this happened.” It’s only “briefly mentioned” Vitiello said, bringing up a conversation she had in Philosophy class that day. Next year, most freshmen —as part of the graduating class 2024 — will have been born in 2002, making this year the last that students will have been alive for the 2001 event. Even fewer on campus have a memory of it.

“We were talking about … what makes a person truly good and altruistic, and we were talking about the firefighters and the policemen who had helped save people and also risking their lives at the same time. But then it kind of just gets tucked away,” Vitiello said. “It’s hard because there’s people that are obviously still alive that have those memories and want to share them. And I feel like now we don’t have that space to share them because there’s people that don’t have those memories.”

How do we create that space? Why doesn’t it exist? And why is that space necessary or important? Implied in the feeling that there isn’t space is a sense that there isn’t a curiosity or willingness to learn about the past from those that were there during it. Is this struggle, between, as Ralph Waldo Emerson would say, the “two poles of nature” — that of the past and the future, universal? In his essay “The Conservative,” he argues that although the Conservative — the party of memory — and the Radical — the party of hope — are at odds, everyone is essentially conservative — they’re all trying to conserve their way, or their own past. Of those that remember 9/11, and those that remember the past in general, there is a fear that the youth, though it owes its present to the past, will be guilty of having, “baked your loaf, and in the strength of its bread you would break up the oven.” Each generation will “quarrel with my conservatism, but it is to build up one of your own; it will have a new beginning, but the same course and end, the same trials, the same passions; among the lovers of the new I observe that there is a jealousy of the newest, and that the seceder from the seceder is as damnable as the pope himself.” The old will always fear that the new ways will be inferior, and the youth will always resent the past’s imposition.

But is there something particular with America that makes this fear even more palpable? Professor and Chair of the History Department Judson Herrman, reflecting on 9/11, remembers the clear skies that morning and the jarring silence when the Boston Logan International Airport he lived two miles next to stopped running flights. 

“(The tragedy) hit you with its full force immediately,” Herrman said. 

He recalled the six months after the event, in terms of art and culture, saying “it just kind of colored everything.” Herrman, a professor of Greek history, teaches a class about war memorials, drawing parallels between the tendency of ancient Greece and modern day America in honoring the casualties of war. Most interesting, though, was what is absent in the tradition today that prevailed in ancient Athenian society. 

First, from our conversation, it seems that in America — though perhaps 9/11 is an exception — that there is a scrambling to put a memorial in place as the last who remember it are dying out; Herrman noted that the Civil War memorial was put in place 30 years after the end of the war. However, in Athenian society, there’s “no suggestion that we shouldn’t forget,” Herrman said. 

“Athens tends to present its history as this timeless continuity that is current,” Herrman said. He cites the Battle of Marathon in 490 BCE, where the Athenians prided themselves on saving the rest of the Greeks from an invading Persian army, and notes that in the theatre decades later in 423 BCE, playwrights might say “you all saved the Greeks” as if the audience members were actually there (Herrman). There is no fear that there will be no memory of events, because the Greeks of yesterday are the Greeks of today are the Greeks of tomorrow, who all participate in an “idealized history of Athens.” The ashes of the dead are collected together, and instead of a Greek civics class, “that content is presented in the form of a patriotic eulogy for the dead every year that died for the democracy.” There’s a “continuity” rather than an acknowledgment we shouldn’t forget. Though the names of the dead would be carved on stone not unlike today, there is a sense of anonymity and collective identity: “You Athenians did this, or we Athenians” did that, “but (there is) not usually a focus on individuals.”

Does America lack a historical consciousness, and is this a problem? Perhaps it is precisely because we are founded on a creed: the creed of the individual, rather than the idea of a shared history that unites us. On 9/11, there was no time for ginger requests for help — brave men and women sprang into action, climbed countless flights of a burning tower with an impending collapse and successfully saved thousands of lives. But on less drastic occasions, are we guilty of remaining isolated, and does a lack of national tradition surrounding historical events deepen that divide? When we have such an onerous ethos of individual responsibility, we may shirk from the burden by blaming others (especially on the other side of the aisle, or immigrants who are far from being terrorists), but we have internalized that sole responsibility, and paradoxically fail to look to our fellow neighbor for help. Though we often put the onus on ourselves exclusively, we have a responsibility to ourselves and others to reach out, to improve ourselves through the process of engagement with other minds, and that includes engaging with the past and the minds of those who remember it so that we may better wrestle with the present. 

When I was in Greece, I remember a man who spoke about the country’s culture of giving and taking, freely. When that man in the Amazon warehouse pleaded with his employees in September of last year, “Do not let me die,” when he was writhing on the floor dying from a heart attack, and no one called 911 for 25 minutes, did we forget about the unity that we found on 9/11? Has Alexis de Toqueville’s worst nightmare come true? That there is a force of an atomizing individualism, where everyone is equally on their own? That a democracy may cause every man to “forget his ancestors, but it hides his descendants and separates his contemporaries from him; it throws him back forever upon himself alone and threatens in the end to confine him entirely within the solitude of his own heart” (de Toqueville, 1835).

Ezekieli Seti, ’23,, who came to America in 2009 from Tanzania, faced backlash and hate as an immigrant, presumably as a result of the attitudes formed following the attacks. He mentioned the “survivor tree,” a Callery pear tree that was damaged from one of the falling twin towers, and then relocated and rehabilitated by the local New York community. 

“A tree, as it grows, it grows leaves and then over time those leaves fall off and new leaves grow back, kind of like old perspectives that may have negative memories toward it are kind of left behind, depending how people are moving forward, and eventually new things sprout up and come into existence.” Not all of the old perspectives must die, though: “Some of them should definitely be remembered, like some of the people that died, like children or brothers or relatives to someone, and some of the firefighters and the people that were rushing in to get people to the hospital. Those memories do need to stay because then they kind of remind us that when issues like this do happen in America we still have that sense of unity where we can kind of come together where we’re not really thinking about ourselves as an individual but more of a bigger picture,” Seti said. 

There may be at tendency to shirk from uncomfortable, harrowing topics, but this is a missed opportunity for fresh branches, like those on the survivor tree, to grow. Ask yourself, do you want to live in a culture of comfort? Or clarity? Ask ourselves which leaves are worth shedding and which roots are worth watering? The past is the gateway to the future, as Emerson so poetically stated: “The leaves and a shell of soft wood are all that the vegetation of this summer has made, but the solid columnar stem, which lifts that bank of foliage into the air to draw the eye and to cool us with its shade, is the gift and legacy of dead and buried years.” Sometimes, as someone who is older than some, look around and see the present as blighted, ignorant, and stammering, but I must remember that “the existing world is not a dream, and cannot with impunity be treated as a dream; neither is it a disease; but it is the ground on which you stand, it is the mother of whom you were born” (1841).

A final exchange between Herrman and I reminded me, though, that there is still much beauty, mirth and humor in this blighted, ignorant, stammering present. I had taken his only section of the “Cultural World of Bob Dylan” that he had ever taught, and he mentioned to me that Dylan had a nearby show as part of his “Never-Ending Tour,” which we all know will end someday. It might not be much longer that you’ll get to see him in concert, he warned with a smile. True, I thought, I’ll have to see it. 

“Then I’m going to have to teach people about Bob Dylan,” I joked. “For those that don’t remember,” he keenly rejoined.

The youth will always struggle to learn, the old will always struggle to teach. But the teacher and the student, together, create the teaching. Ask your elders for help with understanding history, ask your juniors to take up the understanding. Help each other create a bond today that will last until tomorrow. What will you do to create a community, not just in times of crisis like 9/11 but all year round? Together, as Emerson, said, “This time, like all times, is a very good one, if we but know what to do with it.”