by Jeremy F. Walton
Several weeks after September 11, 2001, I participated in what was surely a frequent sort of event at the time: a hastily organized panel of academic experts summoned to reflect upon the radical political upheavals of the recent weeks. This particular panel occurred at the University of Chicago, where I was then a second-year graduate student in Anthropology; the first speaker was the Haitian anthropologist Michel-Rolph Trouillot, an early mentor of mine. Rolph, as we affectionately called him, struck a dramatic note: “A pillar of impenetrable, black smoke in the firmament. The echo of jet engines above, weapons of war. On all sides: death.” He went on to describe the brutal and tragic events of September 11, but not the September 11 that we had gathered to reckon—his own narrative was set in Santiago, on September 11, 1973, the date of the coup d’état that constituted the bloody birth pangs of Augusto Pinochet’s military junta in Chile. Rolph’s rhetorical and political point was as sharp as his description was vivid: Already, in a mere two weeks, the meaning and collective memory of “September 11” had come to exclude everything other than the national trauma of the United States. To this day, I continue to wonder how Chileans interpret and experience each anniversary of September 11 (and note that September 11 can now only exist as an anniversary), especially if they happen to find themselves in the United States at the time.
9/11 fatigue seems ubiquitous in New York City on this tenth anniversary of the attacks, particularly among the Leftist and academic circles where I occupy most of my time. In light of ongoing political violence in Afghanistan and Iraq and the concomitant, cresting cynicism over the Obama administration’s foreign policy in relation to Bush’s wars, 9/11 fatigue is a fully comprehensible, affective response to the cadences of nationalism that have accompanied public commemoration of the tenth anniversary of September 11, 2001. I found myself nodding in agreement, for instance, when reading David Rieff’s recent Harper’s essay, “After 9/11: The Limits of Remembrance” (August 2011), which posits a politics of forgetting as a foil to the problematic, jingoistic remembrance of 9/11. Rieff writes, “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.” Like Rieff, I also harbor pointed doubts about the relationship between commemoration and history; I agree that the two can often work at cross purposes, and that the hegemonies of remembrance, especially those that now inscribe 9/11 on the collective American memory, demand interrogation. But is the antithetical strategy of forgetting the most effective weapon against these hegemonies?
It is productive in this context to meditate on the distinction between forgetting and remembering differently. To forget is a purely negative political act that takes solace in its empty consistency. Even if it were possible to forget 9/11 entirely, the politics of such forgetting would be deeply cynical. Rather, on this tenth anniversary of 9/11, we should struggle to remember differently. This, of course, was Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s point in the weeks following September 11, 2001, when remembering differently demanded exceptional courage indeed. To prevent “9/11” from becoming a dogma and creed, Trouillot realized that divergent memories of the date required enunciation and nurturing. Hence his trenchant reminder of September 11 1973, in Santiago. More recently, The New York Times offered another welcome prompt to remembering differently: the story of Henryk Siwiak, a Polish immigrant to New York City who was murdered on the night of September 11, 2001, in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant under mysterious circumstances. Siwiak’s murder remains unsolved. More importantly in this context, however, the very memory of his death constitutes a mode of counter-commemoration, a reminder that the mundane violence of our inner cities continues unabated, even at moments of national trauma.
Both the story of Santiago 1973 and that of the murder of Henryk Siwiak can serve as political acts of remembering differently because they militate against the monopolization of the meaning of “9/11.” But there is another mode of remembering differently that is even more critical in relation to “9/11”: remembrance of the deleterious and violent effects of American discourse and policy following September 11, 2001. Examples of post-9/11 American perniciousness are legion, from water-boarding to Abu Ghraib, from abuses of the Patriot Act to Valerie Plame. Allow me to remember one more: the story of Ibrahim Türkmen, a Turkish imam who was living in Passaic, New Jersey on September 11, 2001. Türkmen had left Turkey several years earlier to pursue both educational and business opportunities in the United States. Soon after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Türkmen’s landlord reported him to the FBI; as she later related, she had rented an apartment to several Middle Eastern men, and “would feel awful if her tenants were involved in terrorism and she didn’t call.” Despite his (eventually) manifest innocence, Türkmen was promptly apprehended and spent approximately five months in custody. He claims that he was tortured during his incarceration; a memoir detailing his experience will soon be published in Turkey. The cause of remembering 9/11 differently here would benefit greatly from more such memoirs in English, too. In the brief story of Ibrahim Türkmen, we witness the havoc that the intersection of metastasized, xenophobic paranoia and state power can wreak.
So, yes, I’m tired of 9/11. Exhausted by it. But this fatigue should not constitute the alibi for indifference, solipsism, or cynicism. We cannot forget 9/11, certainly not yet, probably not in any of our lifetimes. Nor should we. We can, however, remember 9/11 differently. Indeed, we must. For if we fail to do so, the monolith of “9/11” will inexorably silence other stories—including those of Santiago, Henryk Siwiak, and Ibrahim Türkmen—that map a divergent, and occasionally insurgent, topography of public memory.
Jeremy F. Walton is an assistant professor/faculty fellow in New York University’s Religious Studies Program.