Many years ago, a plane fell from the sky in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. Today, Americans by the millions visit the Flight 93 National Memorial. They think of those who died in this vast field. It is a place that encourages the act of remembering. Tomorrow, amid the hustle of everyday living, Americans will pause to remember a day that changed the world.
Twenty years have passed since United Flight 93 made its final descent. Chaos unfolded aboard as Todd Beamer—husband, father, and Sunday School teacher—shouted “Let’s roll!” His words rallied a handful of others on board in an attempt to thwart the vicious attack. The Twin Towers and the Pentagon burned 300 miles to the east. Nearly one-fifth of the country is too young to remember that day firsthand. Still, together we remember.
Then as now, the September 11 attacks both united divided people. Some remembered God’s goodness and claimed His promises in the midst of human tragedy; some saw only evil. Americans, for a brief time however, saw one another as kindred, united in grief and shock.
From Genesis to Revelation, the word remember is found over 200 times. God asks His people to remember the way and words and deeds and name of the Lord. He also encourages remembering God’s leading in past events. “Remember the former things of old; for I am God, and there is no other.” (Isaiah 46:9)
Remembering is not just a state of mind. Those who beg us to remember the Holocaust have long insisted that remembering is an act, especially when loss and trauma are involved.
9/11 remembering appears in Ground Zero (the site of the former World Trade Center buildings) ceremonies, tribute walks, band concerts, moments of silence, and prayers, both public and private. It reveals itself in folk memorials like those raised along lonely roads to mark the sites of traffic deaths. Remembering is embedded in the names of places, like the road that leads to the Flight 93 memorial, the Lincoln Highway. It surfaces in those “where-were-you-when-this-happened moments” that stick with us—sometimes accurately, sometimes not.
Monuments and memorials like those at Shanksville, the National Mall, Birmingham, Pearl Harbor, and around the country evoke national memories and emotions.
“Monuments are history made visible. They are shrines that celebrate the ideals, achievements, and heroes that existed in one moment in time,” says historian Judith Dupre.
Yet while monuments stand immovable and unchanging, remembering itself evolves.
So what does remembering mean on a 20th anniversary—or at any point when an event like 9/11 starts to become history even though it still very much affects the present?
“Our present influences how we remember the past—sometimes in ways that are known and sometimes in ways that we don’t realize,” says psychology professor Jennifer Talarico. She studies how people form personal memories of public events.
Evidence of how the present affects memory is obvious in the events of the past six weeks in Afghanistan. The war waged there was in direct response to 9/11. It ended pretty much where it began: with the tyrannical and violent Taliban in charge.
“If we were still in Afghanistan and things were stable, we would be remembering 9/11 in probably a very different way than how we will remember it this year,” says Richard Cooper. He worked for the Department of Homeland Security for several years after the attacks.
On this 20th anniversary of 9/11, an entire generation has been born and come of age since the attacks. But that doesn’t mean they haven’t been paying attention. They “remember” too, even if they weren’t around. Psychology professor Krystine Batcho says even those who lack actual living memories of 9/11 “remember” it as shared experience.
This shared event feels like yesterday, but it is also becoming part of history. And when memory becomes history, it can become more remote and hardened, like with a Revolutionary War memorial.
At the Flight 93 National Memorial, different kinds of remembering are clear. In the visitors’ center, artifacts of the moment still bring back the past distinctly: Twisted silverware from in-flight meals is particularly shocking. But yards away at the quiet overlook and its thoughtful memorial, remembering feels more permanent—and now, 20 years later, more symbolic of something that happened a generation ago.
Paul Murdoch, lead architect for the Shanksville memorial, says he carefully designed the site to touch multiple types of memory. Murdoch, who co-designed the memorial with his wife, Milena, didn’t want a memorial that “freezes anger in time or freezes fear.” He says, “I feel like for something to endure over a long period of time, I think it has to operate a different way.”
He wanted the Shanksville memorial to “talk to people of this new generation—or of future generations.”
Tomorrow, when a nation pauses to remember the horrible attack of September 11, 2001, it is not only looking over its shoulder. It is also looking around and wondering: What does this mean to us now?
Answers to that question are complex and likely unknowable this side of heaven. But on this day that 20 years ago upended the physical world, a truth more significant emerges: “In Me you may have peace. In the world you have tribulation, but take courage; I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33)
(Kellen Savoy, center, helps present the colors as students raise the flag at William Lloyd Meador Elementary School in Willis, Texas, on September 11, 2013, to mark the 12th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Jason Fochtman/Conroe Courier via AP)
For more about the 9/11 attack and its reach into the present, read Seeking Justice 20 Years after 9/11.