Sunday, September 11, 2011

What Do We Gain by Remembering Events like the 9/11 Attack, Hurricane Katrina, and Other Tragedies?

As I said on Twitter yesterday, "I was in New Jersey when [the] towers came down. I've written about it before. I don't know if I want to again just b/c of [this] 10 year anniversary." I grappled with whether or not to write anything about September 11 a decade later because it took me until 2004, a whole three years after September 11, 2001, to write anything at all about what I felt on that tragic day. For me, the words I wrote then, "Emotional Land Mines (Remembering 9/11)," still stand.

In the last paragraph of that piece, I said in that essay the following:
The seconds we take to reflect humanizes us, sensitizing us again to the incomprehensible, inoculating us against the incredulous so that we will not be a people at risk like those Santayana spoke of saying, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” We are stronger because we remember.
I did not start watching any of the memorial specials and documentaries in honor of the 10th anniversary until last night, and as I watched, I meditated on why it's still important, a decade later, to commemorate something so horrific as well as other moments of tragedy that draw sorrow to the surface. I meditate on our need to recall catastrophe each year when the annual Hurricane Katrina ceremonies begin here in New Orleans.

Why humans memorialize death and tragedy is a question studied frequently in Anthropology. For instance, this month the journal Anthropology News has published an entire issue on memorials and memorialization about not only how and why we are remembering September 11 and the destruction of The Towers and the 3067 lives lost but also how people in other parts of the world memorialize tragic events in their nations' history. It's a human thing to remember how death visits our lives.

The bombing of The Towers gave us a host of psychic demons to wrestle, and as I look back now, I see that just when I, an American, began to come to terms in 2004 with what I felt and experienced on September 11, 2001--a world-changing event that preceded a personal life-changing event, my divorce, which nearly killed me--my life was shaken again less than one year later with the flooding of New Orleans, my hometown. I have family members who lost their homes, left the city, and still have not returned. I live in a house that carries the quirks of reconstruction--missing light switches, different color schemes, the absence of heirlooms and old black and white photos, and sometimes sounds that make the head turn with expectations of seeing a loved one who is no longer here.

A writer, who is not from New Orleans and not African-American but wonders whether the nation and media have gone overboard with the 10th Anniversary of 9/11, sent me an email a few days ago with a provocative question:
Do you share my slightly sick feeling that we are being manipulated into this orgy of national mourning for an event that yes, was horrible, but the body count--a no less horrible phrase--was nearly identical to that of Katrina, and that's not counting the diaspora that followed and / or those who died of stress-related maladies, including suicide, thereafter?
I will not put her on the spot by mentioning her by name, but she asks a valid question. She is further troubled by the near-absence of black faces in the media flashbacks, the expert interviews, and various documentaries. I confess that I have made similar observations watching the memorial programs, not the official program from today with the family members at Ground Zero, but the retrospectives and documentaries that were run before today's official ceremony aired; however, I don't want to analyze such matters of absence at the moment.

Observations about the media coverage notwithstanding, I will be sending an email to my fellow writer later in which I will say:
"I do not consider the two events, 9/11 or the flooding of New Orleans, comparable historic events in any way that should cause us to examine how much attention one event gets over another in terms of equity. Both memories throttle my soul because I am an American as well as a daughter of New Orleans. But I do think that 9/11 was a bigger event psychically for the nation as a whole. Our fear of terrorism following that attack sucked us into two wars that touched families coast to coast."
And then there is that word "attack." Hurricane Katrina was not an entity endowed with consciousness and so was not capable of intending to attack anyone or anything. Even if we address the manmade failure of the levee system, we cannot impart to that failure a human desire to destroy someone. I think being the victim of intentional violence, knowing that someone hates you enough to kill you and your family, carries with it a different set of emotions.

The bombing of The Towers and the Pentagon on September 11 as well as learning through the crash of United 93 in Pennsylvania that a greater destruction was intended revealed to us Americans our vulnerability in this shrinking world. The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, however, showed us our vulnerability inside this relatively young nation boasting of equality for all: the clash of race and class in creeping degrees of hostility and ugliness.

And yet, both incidents also showed us the breadth and depth of our compassion and generosity toward each other as Americans, as humans.

None of these thoughts, however, explains why we feel compelled to mark the 10th anniversary of 9/11 or why each year down here in Louisiana we continue to mark the day Katrina nearly destroyed New Orleans and its surrounding parishes. But an idea of why we do what we do comes to me now perhaps more clearly than it did when I wrote "Emotional Land Mines."

Perhaps the reason for our compulsion to mark dates of great tragedy and recall them with the laying of wreaths, the unveiling of memorials, with art and payers is the need to remember how we as a people almost died, how we collectively faced near physical and emotional destruction. When we single out these dates, we reflect, we pause and recall not only loss and death but also that we are still here, that we are survivors, and with that recognition comes a sense of empowerment: We can survive tragedy. Knowing that we survived, we are better able to walk through dark tunnels into the unknown and face that light in the distance that could be a brilliant future or the damning headlights of a speeding train. Either way, we go on.

In addition to locating my old essay, while going through my files, I discovered a poem that I also wrote in 2004 with which I end this post, satisfied that I have given the 10th Anniversary of 9/11 the attention it deserves.
And We Go On
by Nordette Adams

Monday, September 13, 2004

Whittle an "S" on our chest:
… Charging all lights a brigade,
eclipsing amber waves
of obfuscation.
Boots and cape, red,
white, and blue,
zealous to leap 110 stories
of visceral weeping
for glory and honor
of our due

Liberty, lift up your skirt!
Rinse blood from its hem into the Hudson.
O! What is the cleanser that brings closure
to our pain?

© Copyright September 2004 Nordette Adams


Diann Blakely said...

A beautiful, eloquent, and deeply moving essay--and poem. But a question resurfaces, one that is not original with me, though it certainly could have been: you refer to 9/11 in terms of national remembrance and to Katrina as being commemorated "down here," and I hear the voice of Douglas Brinkley asking, in IF GOD IS WILLING AND DA CREEK DON'T RISE and in regard to the BP oil disaster, when the rest of American will understand that it--like Katrina, like this summer of drought, torrential rains, and dynamited levees (1927 all over again!)--isn't just a Southern problem but exemplary as an ongoing catastrophe that should disturb, if not outrage, all Americans and demand some sort of redress, or at least attention, on the part of citizens throughout the 50 states that remain, in theory, united?

Vérité Parlant is Nordette Adams said...

Hi, Diann. Thank you.

What you say is true but still 9/11 is not comparable to Hurricane Katrina in a way that would inspire and demand the same kind of national memorialization each year. What our knowledge of Hurricane Katrina demands and should inspire is constant political action based on awareness of a common, national problem, part of which has manageable solutions. For other reasons that have to do with how humans perceive danger and how we experience threats inside a nation versus threats without, reasons that are too complex to examine in the comments section, Hurricane Katrina will never be commemorated nationally the way it is down here and even down here the number of those commemorating Katrina and the richness of expression on its anniversary have decreased. Levee failure will never evoke the same thrashing of the gut that planes slamming into populated skyscrapers will evoke.

Gloria (The Little Red House with the White Porch) said...

Very moving post, Nordette... My heart goes out to you that you had to go through Katrina. But although Katrina and 9/11 were BOTH tragedies, my opinion is that one has nothing to do with the other. Katrina was a HORROR. The amount of lives lost, and homes lost, and businesses lost, and faith lost, was horrible. But it was a man-made error of the levies for the floods or, one can say, an 'act of God.' September 11th, however, was an act of hatred. An INTENTIONAL act of hatred that made all Americans fear for their safety and changed the way everyone travelled by air or by trains, etc. It affected our nation's security. So I can see WHY they are making a big deal of this 10th anniversary of 9/11. That doesn't take away anything of Katrina. Do you know what I mean? And for the person who wrote you who said that African Americans weren't featured too much for this 10th anniversary of 9/11... well, I happen to disagree. I actually took note today, and through all the show tributes that I've seen, of how all ethnicities were included: Blacks, Whites, Asians, Latinos, even people killed in 9/11 who were of the same ethnicity of the killers who flew the planes into the towers and the Pentagon and Flight 93 in Pennsylvania. So I think EVERYONE was covered.
Thanks, as usual, for your thought-provoking post and allowing me to say my opinion.
P.S. I also did a post on 9/11's anniversary today, if you'd like to visit me to read it. Take care, Nordette. OH! and your poem was beautiful...

Vérité Parlant is Nordette Adams said...

Thank you, Gloria. In the middle of my post I said:
And then there is that word "attack." Hurricane Katrina was not an entity endowed with consciousness and so was not capable of intending to attack anyone or anything. Even if we address the manmade failure of the levee system, we can not impart to that failure a human desire to destroy someone. I think being the victim of intentional violence, knowing that someone hates you enough to kill you and your family, carries with it a different set of emotions.
So, I think we're in agreement. There's not much about the two that allows for a point-by-point comparison of devastation and emotional impact.

I was not in New Orleans during Katrina, and so I did not go through the storm. I dealt with the fallout from it because my parents and most of my extended family were in the city. And I moved back in the middle of 2007 and so I have firsthand knowledge of lingering infrastructure and recovery issues.