#NeverForget

Have you ever thought about what a tragedy on the scale of 9/11 would look like in today’s communications world?

I hadn’t, until I read this piece in Quartz:

How we experienced the events as they took place would look different through the prism of social sharing, and so too would the displays of collective mourning. Victims’ profile pages would be transformed into robust online memorials. Their Instagram photos and final tweets would be used in news stories and obituaries. Hashtags like #StayStrongNYC and #WTCNeverForget would trend across platforms. We would start GoFundMe campaigns to raise money for victims’ families. We would all be inclined to provide a running commentary for all of our friends and co-workers and former classmates and ex-boyfriends to “like.”

I can picture this so well, it’s like it already happened.

It’s not distasteful, exactly. It’s the world we live in, and social media has given us many good things. But this added filter makes it automatically seem trendy, an event to be co-opted by brands and opportunists and #fails.

If there was a word beyond overwhelming, I would use it, because that’s all I can imagine – television wouldn’t be enough, but the ceaseless flow of 9/11-related information would cause everyone to drop of exhaustion, of tragedy fatigue.

The author is right that digital displays of shock, grief and support would supplant for some the physical displays of their emotions. Just imagine the solidarity in Facebook profile pictures, the online campaigns, the Twitter arguments over “appropriate” grieving messages.

But perhaps more deadening is the way this would truly embody the mantra of “Never Forget.” We wouldn’t be able to. Tweets are embeddable; even the Library of Congress records them. Vines loop in perpetuity. We could easily click on the year and month in our Facebook timeline and then the rush of remembrance comes in. Our voicemail messages and texts are saved in the cloud anyway, so even if we got a new phone, we’d still be able to access these digital remains somehow, if we really had to.

In 2001, this was no so easily done; yes, there was television and lots of it, and there will continue to be television, even more of it now that it can be streamed, but we wouldn’t be confronted with the replay of horror over and over and over again, not every time we opened up a browser or tapped on a screen. MSNBC replays footage every year on the anniversary, a decision I and many others strongly disagree with. I understand Dan Abrams’ rationale that by reairing it it forces us to confront the day with an honestly that takes it away from being considered “history,” and for those too young to understand or live through the day, it can certainly be riveting in a way that it won’t be for those of us who experienced it live. But it’s also, in today’s parlance, a massive trigger warning, not just to those who experienced losses firsthand but for anyone who finds gruesome death and destruction a reminder of other painful moments, whether or not they stem from 9/11 directly. Can you imagine seeing images of falling bodies, of bloody bodies, of empty, bombed-out clothing stores, of charred IDs and keys and mangled cell phones, of angry, anguished faces running for lives recirculated constantly, no matter where you went?

I recently visited the 9/11 Museum. I braced myself; I knew what I was getting into. The architects designed the museum with the understanding that they didn’t want it to become one massive trigger. That’s why there aren’t loops of video of people falling from buildings or anguished cries. Yes, disturbing material can desensitize people, but for far more it could induce violent or painful reactions. For me, the most emotionally fraught moments were listening to records of family and friends talk about the dead victims; hearing their voices break, imaging the lives these people lead, was more real than any Portrait of Grief I read. Similarly, the most touching moments were seeing artifacts preserved as they were – a hotel key, Windows on the World receipt from dinner the night before, a row of bicycles covered in ash, still chained to the rack as they had been all those years before.

I visited Lower Manhattan – or some semblance of the area that had been hit – a few weeks after the attacks. I took a couple of pictures of signs for the missing, of wreathes and candles and photocopy after photocopy of smiling people, all caps of anguish. I don’t know where these pictures are now – I never got them developed, and I don’t even know if camera was digital then (probably not) – other than reprinted in a mass of other black and white photos in my school newspaper. I cried the entire time we walked the streets, silent tears streaming down my face. I felt embarrassed because I was crying in public but it was impossible not to cry. How do you confront such mass scale pain?

I have a half-hour record of news from that day. I had set a timer a few days before to record a show once a day at 3:30. I know immediately what tape the footage is on, but I’ve never watched it and I’ve never taped over it. It seemed sacrosanct to do either, a violation of principle to willfully forget or relive. In some ways, we do this in our lives – because we have to. But that tape remains for me posterity.

I do not think we should be subjected to repeated viewings, even if once a year, of a day many will call the worst of their lives, and one that ushered in many other people’s worst days. Grief might have to be faced head-on, but it should be done at the discretion of the individual. Planning to see “Flight 93” or hitting play on one of the many 9/11 related documentaries is one thing, just as attending a memorial service or a museum is a way to show respect. But being forced to relive the acute pain and terror of the moment? That does no one any good.

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