Editor’s note: This first appeared in the Pittsburgh Tribune Review in 2018.
This year’s remembrances of September 11, 2001 were odd for me. Consider: Did you ever think you’d live to see a time when the new generation doesn’t remember 9/11?
Well, I’ve reached that point with my students.
For 20 years, I’ve taught Middle East Politics at Grove City College every fall. In the late 1990s, and into my syllabus for the fall 2001 semester, I included a lecture on some grisly fellow named Osama Bin Laden, and an attempt to blow up one of the World Trade Center buildings back in 1993. I wanted my students to know about this diabolical terrorist who ought to be on their radar. The events of the morning of September 11, 2001 (my class would meet later that afternoon) took care of that. Osama and his minions were on our radar, loud and clear. My students, and every student, got a quick tutorial on this sinister Osama dude.
But as for my students this current semester, fall 2018, well, the course has finally reached a point where none remember 9/11. I asked them how many recall the horrors of that morning. I got a room full of blank stares. I’m pretty sure one of the freshmen was actually born after September 11, 2001.
Imagine that. Think about trying to teach what had to be lived to fully comprehend.
How do you teach it? How do you memorialize it?
One place that tries is the Flight 93 memorial in Shanksville. I stopped there last March, for the first time, while off the Turnpike taking a different route home from Washington, DC—which had happened to be the destination of Flight 93. The people on that plane stopped a catastrophe in the nation’s capital, where the aircraft was on its way to the Capitol Dome or White House.
The day I stopped by was windy and bitter cold. I walked along complaining to myself about the chill. It was a stupidly selfish reaction in the face of what those victims had endured and sacrificed.
Few visitors were there that cold afternoon, and the actual exhibition center was closed. I walked to the overlook and glimpsed where the plane hit. It’s a strange experience. You expect something dramatic, eerie—a ghastly crater of some nasty sort that oozes blood from the very ground. It’s not like that. If you were flying over the area today, you’d never even know the spot was anything but a farmer’s field. It’s amazing how our earth mundanely absorbs something like that—literally barely a dent.
I told a friend about my visit. He had been there before and was disappointed. “I wanted to leave that place mad as hell,” he told me, with righteous indignation.” He wants young people who visit, who didn’t live through 9/11, to come away with that feeling.
Hate and rage aren’t good things. But anger properly placed, especially in light of what happened that morning, is understandable, perhaps even necessary, critical. Young people need to know that what transpired was pure evil. Evil does exist. It has been on the prowl since the dawn of humanity. Few modern moments embodied that reality so obviously as September 11, 2001.
Remember that. Teach that.
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