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Karen Heller: Forgetting isn't possible

That bright September day is permanently etched in history.

A test of the Tribute in Light rises above Lower Manhattan. The tribute, sponsored by the Municipal Art Society, will light up the sky Sunday night. (Seth Wenig / Associated Press)
A test of the Tribute in Light rises above Lower Manhattan. The tribute, sponsored by the Municipal Art Society, will light up the sky Sunday night. (Seth Wenig / Associated Press)Read more

You remember that morning, a Tuesday. You remember the weather being too perfect, if such a state exists, the brilliant blue, cloudless, postcard sky, the September day of dreams.

You remember that morning, and all that came after, the volcanic smoke, the fires, the torrent of ash, the deaths.

In minutes, Lower Manhattan was transformed into Dresden, the Pentagon into a battered fort; a field near Shanksville, Pa., became a scorched grave.

You remember because the horror was replayed over and over, on video and in memory, analyzed, debated, manipulated, interpreted, abused.

Everything about that morning, and almost all that came after, was characterized by speed: the planes crashing, the buildings falling, the deaths mounting, the rush to a wrongheaded costly war.

Has there ever been a moment so swiftly memorialized? Has there ever been a tragedy - immediate, brutal, and universally shared at record velocity - that so perfectly mirrors its times?

There were astonishing acts of bravery and kindness, yet stupid things were said, and dumber things were done. Sept. 11 represented the death of irony, and defined bravery and cowardice. The moment was used to explain all. The day marked the end of the old America, said more than one person, a day that changed everything.

Conspiracy theories proliferated. Saddam Hussein was connected, as was Niger yellowcake. Torture was defended. Wars were launched. Homeland Security entered our lives. Also, color-coded threat levels and duct tape.

Fear became the new contagion, and anti-Arab sentiment exploded. Travel, long synonymous with freedom and velocity, became neither.

Statements and acts were executed in haste while people were still wounded, angry, confused. The day has been repeatedly politicized, appropriated, and misappropriated, all with astonishing alacrity.

The Manhattan memorial to Sept. 11 will be dedicated Sunday, a decade after the tragedy. The Martin Luther King Memorial was dedicated last month, 43 years after King's murder.

In the midst of a lumbering recession, partially caused by the punishing cost of two wars launched in the urgency to do something, Manhattan developers rushed to rebuild skyscrapers, an emotional but fiscally unsound impulse. There's a paucity of tenants, and taxpayers are subsidizing $11 billion worth of government-sponsored projects.

Artists and historians often require decades to filter history, the distance and time necessary for thoughtful interpretation. We're still distilling Vietnam, and both world wars. We may never recover from slavery and the rifts of the Civil War.

But the need to interpret Sept. 11 was immediate, a rush to judgment. The day became a symbol before the fires were extinguished.

A decade later, we have a vast trove of theater, movies, music, art, and fiction, and an exhausting amount of journalism. There is no end in sight.

Much of where we are today is because of what happened on that morning, but grief, shock, anger, fear, and loss, all reactions to that moment, take their toll.

Reflection, silence, and patience are needed for greater insight.

Now, because we maul any anniversary, we're experiencing Sept. 11 overload. The tributes and memories are a necessary support for many people, but we need to take a break.

We think we know what happened. I argue that the consequences are still playing out, and our understanding will come only later.

We won't know for years the cost and toll of going to war. To use the language of loss and therapy, we're still processing. Yet we keep trying to make sense, deliver appraisals, truths, and enduring art and tributes.

Decades from now, we may have an entirely different vision and understanding of that moment.

You remember that morning. We all do.

And we're never going to be in danger of forgetting.