The television was on when I walked into Mr. Martelli’s classroom. At first, I thought he was cuing up a video for us to watch. But since we had barely cracked the 1800s in our AP US History class, I thought it was odd that there was a skyscraper on screen.
By the time I got to my seat, I realized that we were watching the news. Two planes had hit the World Trade Center. We were watching smoke billow in real time. We were watching people die in real time. We were watching evil in real time.
Mr. Martelli had a newspaper with him. Below the headline was a gigantic picture of Osama Bin Laden. I can’t remember whether it was a new edition of the morning paper or whether he had dug it out of the archives. I’m fuzzy on what the headline actually said. It didn’t matter ultimately because Bin Laden’s face was destined to be glaring at us from TV screens for months.
The TV got muted and we started to talk. We jumped a few hundred years ahead in the curriculum to talk about terrorists, globalism, and foreign policies fueled by American hubris. While we were talking, the first tower collapsed.
Someone was crying. I forget who. It might have been me.
I thought that day would be fixed in my mind forever, as sharp and clear as a crystal sculpture. But it seems that my memories from that day were made of ice instead. It’s incredible how much of it has melted away.
Of the pieces that are still clear, I recall being glued to the TV while we were supposed to be having a band lesson. Our teacher that day was a teaching intern from West Chester University. I can’t remember his name. I know he was tall and had a mustache. He gave up trying to convince us to play five minutes into the period. The rest of the school day is a blur, but I think they let us go home early. I watched the President address the nation that night with my family.
And that’s all I can remember from one of the worst day’s in our nation’s history.
People always marvel at how malleable memory is. Our brains can be selective, choosing to have us remember what we ate for lunch one day rather than who we ate it with. Brains can also be tricksters, inserting memories that are false but seem so real that people refuse to believe they remembered it wrong.
Our collective memory, one that we call History, is just as flawed. As a society, we often latch on to false narratives, downplaying any evidence that contradicts the heroic accounts of our ancestors. We blot out flaws, bury misdeeds, and choose to forget about events or perspectives that could undermine our present goals.
So it’s no surprise to me that after years of war, conflicts we justified through constantly invoking two burning towers in the imaginations of terrified Americans, that we are faced with a venture to Syria that will leave our country with more blood on its hands.
Have we already forgotten the American families who have had to bury a son or daughter in uniform? Has it really been that long since we found out that there is no such thing as “Mission Accomplished” when fighting against insurgents? Haven’t we ended just as many, if not more, innocent lives in Iraq and Afghanistan than the ones that were taken from us on September 11? How many people in the Middle East have to die to make us feel safe?
I generally agree that if a neighbor’s house is burning that you should help them put the flames out. Yet if your neighbors are squabbling and set their own house on fire, what good will come of choosing to intervene? If you do, chances are high that all you’ll get out of it is grief and burns.
Supposedly we teach History so that we don’t repeat our mistakes. Perhaps we should amend that cliche; say that we teach History because it helps us predict the mistakes that we’re going to make over and over again.
Even if our individual memories are faulty, our society has no excuse for cherry-picking the past. History has shown us that bathing our wounds in blood doesn’t heal them. It’s time for us to stop trying.
I like to think that’s what Mr. Martelli was trying to teach us that day.