The week after 9/11, I went to Washington to attend a book party. I was the only one there from New York, and everyone wanted to know what it had been like. Since I happened to have been out of town when the planes hit, I couldn’t tell them much, only that I now understood what rescue teams must feel when they arrive at a disaster site after the earthquake or hurricane is over. Destruction everywhere, much work to do, but life continues. There wasn’t much more to be said. We hadn’t been invaded; the president hadn’t been assassinated; the global balance of power hadn’t shifted. And terrorism was the same threat it had been on 9/10. The bastards just got lucky.
I was met by understanding but slightly condescending smiles. “Now,” one government official told me, dropping his voice a register, “everything changes. This will never be forgotten.” I was skeptical. Like everyone, I was touched and reassured by the outpourings of grief and expressions of solidarity. But it still felt like the beginning of a familiar American ritual. The tragedy will be mourned, then trivialized, then commercialized, and then amnesia will set in. That’s how things work here. This is America, where memory comes to die.
I was wrong. For once, our forgetfulness failed us.
“Never forget” long ago entered the lexicon, in relation to the Holocaust. It has now been reassigned to 9/11, where it is likely to remain. It has become a mantra and a marketing tool for politicians and merchandise alike. (I was right about that.) Cato the Elder used to bring the Roman Senate to its feet by ending his speeches with the phrase “And Carthage must be destroyed!” Our leaders need only toss out the line “And we will never forget” to provoke a similar reaction. How is Carthage to be destroyed? What exactly are we to remember? That we’re never told. I once spent a year in Germany, and hardly a day passed that I wasn’t anxiously reassured by someone that Wir werden niemals vergessen—“we will never forget”—which was hardly reassuring.* I felt myself in a nation of sleepwalkers reciting a charm, unable to wake up and think clearly about the present.
That’s what the past ten years have been like in the U.S. Remembrance became a narcotic that turned a prosperous nation at peace into a debt-ridden wayward giant lumbering around the world, willfully ignorant of its folly, its speech slurred and incomprehensible to anyone but itself. It sedated Congress and the press, which failed to ask the most basic questions about our military adventures. It fogged the minds of once-lucid liberal intellectuals, who grafted their fantasies of liberty and justice for all, down to the last tent in the last village in the last desert, onto a cynical ploy by anti-liberal intellectuals to take their revenge for Vietnam and “restore American greatness.” And it anesthetized Middle America, which developed a taste for media demagogues and cornpone politicians who ignored the messy details of our foreign entanglements and the questionable bookkeeping that masked their real cost.
Fresh memories take up a lot of RAM. They not only slow down thinking, they make it harder to retrieve older memories that once made us wiser. And how much the phrase “Never forget” has made us forget! We forgot why the War Powers Resolution was originally passed. We forgot that nations can’t be built where people don’t see themselves as a nation. We forgot that family-trumps-clan-trumps-tribe-trumps-state in much of the world, and that a police uniform does not a citizen make. We forgot that democratization empowers the demos, not just the bloggers. We forgot that the demos hates the powerful and never forgets humiliations, real or perceived. We forgot that revolutions always provoke reactions.
We forgot that things can always get worse.
Mark Lilla, professor of humanities at Columbia University, is the author of The Stillborn God: Religion, Politics, and the Modern West.