Many Possible Futures

As I surveyed today's countless op-eds and commentary about commemorating the 10th Anniversary of the attacks that took place on September 11, 2011, I was pleased to find these thoughtful words in a New York Times editorial:

"It seemed, in the days after 9/11, as though we stood at the juncture of many possible futures. There was as much hope as grief, as much love as anger, and a powerful sense of resilience. We still stand at the juncture of many possible futures. They are occasioned not by what terrorists in four airliners did to us, but by what we have done in the decade since (emphasis added). As a nation, we have done a better job of living with our fears, sadly, than nurturing the expansive spirit of community that arose in those early days."

As this editorial reminds us, taking the full measure of 9/11 and what it means for our society has more to do with what we've done these ten years than it does with the actual attacks. What we've done wrong, as well as what we've done right. In order to take this full measure, we have to step outside of the familiar and more comfortable 'remembrance' frame, which tends to impose an official version of events.

This is what I had in mind four years ago today, on the 6th anniversary of 9/11. That day, I was thinking about the nature of memory, and the ways in which official commemorations can fix our memories of an event to such an extent that we can no longer reclaim our own experiences of that moment. In my commentary for the day I quoted a character from Milan Kundera's Book of Laughther and Forgetting:  "The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against oblivion." I noted that our own 'struggle of memory' had to do with reclaiming complex feelings and reflections from the oversimplified official stories that seek to define the 9/11 events, and their aftermath, for us. The official narrative was used to lead us into war with a nation that did not attack us. Our collective memories got caught up in a web of distortions.

Much has changed in the four years since I wrote those words: a new Administration, a broader, more critical conversation about the reasons we declared pre-emptive war on Iraq, a loss of support for both wars, an Arab Spring that hopefully signals new experiences of small 'd' democracy in places that have suffered under authoritarian regimes. And yet, too much also is the same: politicians still use 9/11 to stoke fear and to score political points, Islamophobia is still on the rise, Guantanamo is still open, the machinery of surveillance, deportation and rendition still largely in place, and we still see ourselves as being engaged in a never-ending 'war on terror.'

Another significant change since September 2001 is the fundamental shift in our nation's economic security --- the near-collapse of our financial system in the Fall of 2008, a prolonged recession, record-breaking levels of unemployement and foreclosures, alongside a grotesque display of concentrated wealth and power in the hands of corporate and financial leaders who have no sense of shared sacrifice during a time of crisis. Official responses to this different kind of crisis have not included many moments of reflection on our shared fates, or our shared responsibilities to rebuild our economy. And, since early 2010, the window of opportunity for exploring a new, more stable foundation for our economy has been nailed shut.

Taking full measure of these past ten years so that we can choose a better future must include confronting the political-economic challenges posed by this recession. It includes coming to terms with a financial sector that won't do its job and a political system that serves the interests of those who caused the financial crisis. The way forward must include investing more in shared economic security and prosperity. If only we could harness that sense of connection and belonging that we felt for a few days after the horrific 9/11 events, and use it to build an economy that works for all of us. That 'expansive sense of community' is needed now more than ever.

In order to embrace a future of shared prosperity and peace, we also have to be clear that all of us are included in the 'we.' As Rinku Sen suggests in a powerful commentary on Colorlines, we can choose to tell a story of 9/11 that is inclusive and forward-thinking:

"Every story has a sequel, shaped by our interpretation of the past. There is a 9/11 story in which we belong to each other. That’s the one I’ll be telling as we move into the next decade."

So here we are, at the juncture of many possible futures. Let's move toward the socially and economically inclusive path.