In November 2009, I spent a week with my head buried in textbooks as far as the eye can see. Where can one do this? At the one and only Georg Eckert Institute in Brunschweig, Germany, home to over 100,000 textbooks from scores of countries.
I was on a research trip collecting clippings, searching for retellings of 9/11 in history textbooks from all over the world. It was a bit like a treasure hunt – and a coded one at that. As I spoke painfully few of the languages in the books I was sifting through I found myself looking for clues – dates, names, catch words – to tip me off about the mention of the event. But sometimes even these don’t jump out, especially for languages with non-Roman alphabets.
So when possible, I was looking for images, flipping through pages, eyes peeled for anything that resembled the iconic images of the day. Occasionally, books throw in an atypical shot, like this one of smoke from the crash of Flight 93 in Pennsylvania, which appears in the third edition of Created Equal, an American textbook which toes the counter-culture line (see image at top).
But more often than not, the exact image that appears in textbooks abroad is this:
Walking home from the library in the evening, two days into the trip, I felt shaken up. It struck me that I’d become so desensitized to these images, which I’ve seen over and over again for years, that I view them and pass them by with little thought. I remember watching them unfold the day of, transfixed to the television in English class, thinking this cannot possibly be real. It’s been said again and again, but it does look like something out of a movie, something staged and detached from the real world.
But with these images seared, fixed in my mind as I rifled through thousands of pages of high school textbooks, I found myself becoming slowly ‘un-desensitized’. Experiencing them as if for the first time again.
It’s so easy to only see the metal, the fire, the smoke in these photographs. The non-human elements. Which is exactly why it’s so important to note that this is image selected – sometimes the only one – to represent 9/11 in textbooks. Important to recognize that for an event that has changed so many lives, there is not an image of people. But instead one of shattering glass and explosions.
It is the images we remember that define the memories we keep. By allowing this to be the image that defines 9/11 – this angry, harsh, fiery shot – we forget the sadness and broken hearts, the need to heal and rebuild that came with that day. Focusing on the anger is how we got into the mess that we’re in today – the need for revenge and retaliation that led us into Afghanistan and Iraq.
Rebecca Solnit, who writes about citizenries’ abilities to respond to tragedy with dignity and calm, said it beautifully in her piece “9/11’s Living Monuments” on TomDispatch.com:
Eight years ago, 2,600 people lost their lives in Manhattan, and then several million people lost their story. The al-Qaeda attack on the Twin Towers did not defeat New Yorkers. It destroyed the buildings, contaminated the region, killed thousands, and disrupted the global economy, but it most assuredly did not conquer the citizenry. They were only defeated when their resilience was stolen from them by clichés, by the invisibility of what they accomplished that extraordinary morning, and by the very word “terrorism,” which suggests that they, or we, were all terrified. The distortion, even obliteration, of what actually happened was a necessary precursor to launching the obscene response that culminated in a war on Iraq, a war we lost (even if some of us don’t know that yet), and the loss of civil liberties and democratic principles that went with it.
We desperately need to take back our memories, redefine the way we see this event. Yet we continue to fail to do that – in being desensitized to these images, and to passing them off to our future generations.
And that’s why I’m doing this research.
In case you’re curious, you can read Rebecca’s entire piece here. It is well worth the time.