One Day, We'll Commemorate 9/11 Like the Civil War

tags: 9/11

Kevin M. Levin is an independent historian and history educator in Boston.  Before moving to Boston he taught history at the St. Anne’s – Belfield School in Charlottesville.  He is the author of the book, Remembering the Battle of the Crater: War as Murder.  You can find him online at Civil War Memory [http://cwmemory.com]

African American Civil War Memorial in Washington, D.C. Credit: David Austin Walsh.


Next week will mark the tenth anniversary of the attacks of September 11, 2001.  It will be a solemn day for most Americans.  Memorials will be held at “Ground Zero” in New York City, at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., in Shanksville, Pennsylvania (the site of the Flight 93 crash) and in countless smaller communities around the country.  Most Americans who were alive that day will vividly recall where they were when the attacks occurred as well as the emotional response that pointed to a world forever changed. 

Not surprising, the dominant theme of all these ceremonies will be focused on the remembrance of the victims as well as the survivors.  For many families, including my own, we will remember loved ones who were lost that day.  My cousin Alisha Levin worked as a vice-president for Human Resources for Fuji Bank, which was located on the 82nd floor of the South Tower.  She achieved this position at the young age of 33.  Rarely does a day go by that I don’t think of her. 

Indeed, the families of the victims and survivors are a key component to 9/11 remembrance and will continue to be so for the foreseeable future.  They are involved in every aspect of 9/11 remembrance from the planning of museum exhibits to the organization of events that commemorate individual victims.  Most of the television specials that are scheduled to air close to and on 9/11 are overwhelmingly centered on the stories of family members and survivors.  In the case of my family a memorial run is being planned to help raise money for a scholarship in Alisha’s memory.  Their involvement reinforces that for each one of us we are recalling lived history.  How we remember the events of 9/11 are interwoven with and inseparable from what we experienced on that day.  Most importantly, how we choose to remember reflects as individuals and as a nation can be traced directly to the overwhelming sadness and sense of uncertainty that was experienced that day.  Our acts of remembrance are still part of the event itself. 

But even as we maintain and nurture that strong emotional and personal connection that each of us owns in connection to 9/11, I am reminded that at some point our collective memory will evolve.  It will gradually evolve away from the personal and toward a more “objective” form of remembrance.  The events of 9/11 will eventually take their place within the broader sweep of early twenty-first century history with all of the complex chains of connections to what came before and after. 

We can see this in the evolution of our own collective memory of the American Civil War.  For the first few decades following the war, remembrances involved the veterans on both sides of the divide.  Reunions with former comrades and even with former enemies ensured that the war would be framed around shared personal experiences of the battlefield and the hardships associated with being separated from loved ones.  The veterans constituted the link to the past and the objects of remembrance ceremonies—as in the case of our own memory of 9-11—were overwhelmingly focused on the lives lost and the bravery and heroism of its survivors.  For white Southerners, the commemoration of the dead and celebration of its veterans functioned to assuage the pain of battlefield defeat and the end of slavery, while offering reassurance that the cause of independence remained righteous.  Northerners often celebrated their dead, as well as their veterans, as a necessary sacrifice for the preservation of the Union.  The sacrifice of African Americans came to be seen as part of a painful, but promising narrative that traced their story from slavery to freedom and the promise of full citizenship in a newly restored nation.  The number of cemeteries, monuments, and memorials that dot our landscape bear witness to the visceral effects of loss on a national scale and a need on the part of the survivors to make sense of it in a way that allows both individuals, communities and a nation to forge ahead. 

With the death of the Civil War generation our collective memory gradually shifted away from the personal to a more detached perspective that is much more conducive to understanding the event as history in all of its complexity.  This is not to minimize some of the more contentious issues related to Civil War remembrance that continue to divide Americans; rather, it is meant to highlight the length of time needed to be able to approach the past without having to give the personal priority within the narrative.  Only in the last few decades have Americans been willing to deal with the tough questions of race and slavery and their central importance to understanding the cause of the war as well as their role in shaping both the short- and long-term consequences of the conflict.  As we approach the second year in a five-year commemoration of the one hundred fiftieth anniversary of the Civil War an interpretation has emerged that would have been unthinkable fifty years ago during the war’s centennial celebrations.  We see signs of this in museum exhibits, public lectures, teacher workshops, art, music, and on the shelves of our local bookstores.

Even one hundred fifty years later, however, Americans still connect to the Civil War through a sense of shared loss and a need to remember the scale of death and destruction wrought.  We do this by connecting with the past through individual stories and personal accounts that help to collapse the distinction between past and present. 

At some point our collective memory of 9/11 will evolve as the generation that lived through those events hands over the burden of remembrance to a new generation of Americans.  Their interpretation of the event will be informed by a more detached reading of the historical record, which will inevitably shape various forms of remembrance and commemoration.  Contentious subjects such as the cause of the attacks as well as its consequences will be debated with an immediacy that reflects the importance of the event itself.  What will not be lost, however, is the need to remember and honor individual lives and stories. 

We are at very different places in our collective memories of 9/11 and the Civil War.  What they both serve to remind us of, however, is not simply that we have a deep need to remember the past, which is certainly the case, but that we have a deep need to imagine ourselves as connected to others in both space and in time.  As was the case in the immediate wake of the Civil War we will reflect on our memories of loved ones, whose lives were cut tragically short.

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