I am not qualified to write about the personal dimension of 9/11. I have visited Ground Zero and the Pentagon, read eyewitness accounts and the painful recollections of the bereaved. While the grief born of 9/11 and the importance for memorial are perhaps the first concerns for any remembrance, I can’t presume to add my weak words to the tributes of those of the closer-connected and the wiser. Instead, I’d just like to share a few thoughts on how we experience history.
The other day, a professor handed out a timeline of Israeli history, beginning just before the Second World War and continuing down to the present day. As in most such timelines, the events clustered thickly towards the present. In timelines of greater scope, such as the famous “Timetables of History,” I’d always put this phenomenon down to a failure of the record. But the Israeli case seemed to disprove this assumption. I spent the summer filing chronologies of Middle Eastern history since the 1940s, and can attest both that plenty was happening there 60 years ago and that we have a meticulous record of it.
The question is perhaps not one of ignorance but of hindsight. More than half a century later, we know which events were momentous and which were not. Caught up in the blizzard of present events, beamed to us by an ever-more sophisticated array of devices, it is nearly impossible to tell what will ultimately matter.
9/11 was one of the very few events — the only one my generation has lived through — that was immediately recognizable as a turning point. It illuminated the past, forcing a revision of post-Cold War narratives; it obscured the future, which no longer seemed to promise “the end of history.” In the horrific destruction of that day, a new world was conceived. At first it seemed like one more confident in its values, more sure of where the lines had to be drawn between good and evil. A decade later, it is a more uncertain one, a disillusioned world united by little more than economic hardship. In the end, like the world before it, it is unlikely to be definable by a single set of traits.
Catastrophic events do not create new worlds by fundamentally changing the qualities of humanity. Brutality, bravery and compassion have always existed, and probably always in equal measure. Rather, such events create new worlds of universal experience. The scattered clutter of events coalesces around a single moment. History gathers itself with a breath — then continues again into uncertainty.
Sam Lasman is a senior in Berkeley College.