Happy Mortal

This life, well-lived.

How We Never Forget 9/11

Trending twitter topic on 9/11: “never forget.” I think I first saw the phrase tattooed on a biker’s arm at a gas station in Lowden, WA. As I remember he was also wearing a black bandana and leather vest, and the words were inked under a sketch of the twin towers set against an American flag. Never forget . . . Why should we never forget? The immediate answer is the obvious answer–“Those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it.” (I had to google to find out that Edmond Burke wrote that).

If we sweep the New York heap of twisted metal, plastic, and bodies under the rug, then we make ourselves more vulnerable to further attack. When we say “never forget,” I assume it refers to learning from 9/11, so that we can protect ourselves from future terrorist acts. I also assume it means honoring the dead and the families of the those who died. Leaving an empty seat at the table, so to speak (cf the World Trade Center Memorial).

I find these common sense meanings take on fresh significance when we consider neurobiological research on human memory. Though we are far from understanding exactly how the brain retrieves memories, researchers have discovered that every time we “call up” a long term memory–every time we bring it into “working memory”–we adapt the memory based on our current state of mind, and that adapted memory is what gets stored again in long term memory. Simply put, humans do not have completely separate writing and recall functions.

Dr. Suzanne Corkin, professor of behavior science at MIT, puts it this way, “We believe that when you remember something it’s really an active process. You’re not tuning into a few cells in your brain where a particular memory is stored. What you’re really doing is creating a memory based on information that you have stored in many parts of your brain” (italics mine). This “created memory” gets created differently each time it is recalled. You add new info, fill in gaps with imagination, and color the memory with whatever emotions you are experiencing at the time. This must be why I can’t for the life of me recall what my picture of Harry Potter was before Daniel Radcliffe came into my life. This is why people misidentify their assailants in police line-ups.

What’s the point? Certainly not that we will distort the “facts” of 9/11 beyond recognition. After all, we got it on video. My point is that we should remember the nature of memory when we “never forget 9/11.” The neural activities associated with “never forget” have just as much (if not more) to do with what is happening in the present than what happened in the past. We are not merely changing our present and future by learning from the past, we are changing the past by calling it into the present.

The collective nature of 9/11 could mean that we have more reliable data from which to “never forget”–more testimonies, video, written studies, etc. Then again, the political and symbolic nature of 9/11 makes the act of recall subject to prevalent political, economic, and religious interests (this even includes the control and presentation of the data). What are the memories we are creating as we re-live the planes smashing into the towers a decade ago? What is our state’s “state of mind” as we recollect the images of people flinging themselves out of windows? In what ways are we, right now, shaping this tragic past event by re-articulating it in the present?

Never forget 9/11. Maybe it’s time to replace this static phrase with a question about the dynamics of the present. How are we remembering 9/11?


  1. This is really fascinating, Will. This post had me trying to recall my experience of the actual day ten years ago, and I remembered (or filled-in the gaps with) something I hadn’t thought about for a while. When I woke up that morning and heard what happened, the thing that had the biggest impact on me initially was the fact that a plane had crashed into the pentagon. Symbolically, that felt HUGE to me. Since then, however, all the collective emotion, all the focus on remembering seems to be on the two towers. Now, when I think back on the day, the only thing I see in my mind are the towers burning, and–to me at least–it now feels more like an attack on New York than an attack on our country.

  2. popup–

    That’s interesting. When I reflect on my own experience that day, the funny thing is that I actually have images and emotions that I conjure. In fact, I was overseas in the Marshall Islands on Sept 11, 2001 and did not find out until two or three days after the fact. It wasn’t even until June of 2002 that I saw video footage.

    re: the attack on NY, I can see that on a personal level, but it definitely seemed a symbolic attack on the nation-state.