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Johns: Remembering and not remembering Sept. 11

Johns: Remembering and not remembering Sept. 11

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David Johns

Anyone who was awake twenty years ago has a Sept. 11 story. Some people hurriedly gathered loved ones close, not knowing what to fear, but fearing it nevertheless. Others spent the day staring at a silent sky, or watching looping video images of the same two planes colliding time and time again into the same two buildings.

For my part, I had just finished reading a Time magazine article I thought was ironic. I walked down the hall to share a laugh with a coworker, ready to add some humor to the least interesting day of the week.

But he was transfixed, listening to a small radio sitting on his desk. Farther down the hall, a similar scene. Within minutes, several of us walked across the street to Clyde’s house, the nearest television we could find. There we sat for the rest of the day wondering when a plane would dive into our town.

The senses we have had since birth--taste, touch, smell, sight, sound--are how we interact with the world and how we know the lights are still on within us. But when fear is acute, these senses either shut down to protect us, or they wake up to protect us.

Mine woke up.

And while in New York City that day smelled like burnt steel, smoke, and cremation, in Richmond, Indiana, it smelled like fresh bread, laundry detergent, and the dusty sofa in Clyde Johnson’s family room.

It really is hard to know how to remember some days, or certain events, or particular people. We know this to be true, because we struggle mightily these days with monuments and memorials, and this reminds us that remembering is not as easy nor as safe as it may seem.

I am conflicted with how to remember this day. Without a doubt we must remember the victims whose lives were crushed between floors of the Towers, incinerated--ashes to ashes--and those who chose to soar rather than meet a fiery end. We must remember the spectacle of twisted steel and the ashen faces of first responders, a new breed of Super Hero that was born out of the rubble of that day.

However, these things--destruction, body count, crowds running in fear--these are images of victory for those whose goal was terror.

Twenty years removed from that day and I believe more strongly than ever that Sept. 11 is not the day we should remember. Sept. 12 is. And the 13th, and Sept. 14, 15, 16, and beyond.

Frankly, I have trouble separating what actually happened on that day from what has been kneaded into my memory through two decades of elaboration. Documentaries, conspiracy theories, cell phone videos, political pontification, and newsreels. What I can say with certainty is that September 11th exposed human cruelty and hatred, but Sept. 12 displayed human resolve and solidarity. One day was a testament to nature ‘red in tooth and claw,’ the other a testament to the ‘better angels’ of this nature.

Of course, I am misremembering and painting with a broad brush of idealism. In the days following the 11th, we heard calls for scorched earth revenge that were as ugly as any terrorist’s invective against the United States, and irrational fear caused us to look at each other with suspicion when we boarded a plane together.

But being lumped together as one by the terrorists actually made us act together as one--mostly, and for a time. It seemed to matter less who was who or what group we represented. We were Americans, dammit, and we would live or die that way!

It did not last long, but it happened--a glimpse long enough to convince some of us that it was real, and if real, then something that could happen again. And, maybe the next time, we would not need to be in the crosshairs of violence to bring it back.

I don’t know. Many days that feels like a utopian fantasy. We are as polarized as we have been for quite some time, and simply being fellow citizens does not seem to be quite enough for us to accept each other as fellow Americans.

Our lives look too much like Sept. 11--filled as they often are with fear, and anger, with twisted steel, and revenge. Twenty Septembers later, and my hope for humanity does not come from remembering that day, but from remembering the days that follow it.

David L. Johns is president of Ferrum College and can be reached at

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