It has been 15 years since the terrorist attacks of September 11th. Dutifully, flags at public buildings across the country fly at half-staff, and the nation takes a moment to pause and reflect on the tragedy. We remember the innocent victims in the World Trade Center, on each plane, and in the Pentagon, as well as the heroic individuals aboard Flight 93. We remember the first responders, firemen and women, and the families of victims for whom the event retains its bitter sting. But, we must honestly ask, does it retain its sting for us others who can only remember where we were when it happened, or for our students who were not yet born?
This past summer, we also remembered the 100th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme, a gruesome, several-month encounter that has all but been forgotten. This event and the Great War of which it was a key part changed the course of European politics, destroying empires and giving rise to new waves of radicalism in the USSR and Germany. But just as time heals wounds, it blurs our memories, and there is no preventing the gradual fading of our concern for events like it and like September 11th. We stand at a distance from them and start to think, “I wonder when the next event like this will happen for our children,” just as we heard tell of (or remember) the fall of the Berlin Wall or Kennedy’s assassination. And that is a somber thought, to know that there will be some other such tragedy that we will need to explain to our students. And what shall we say to them? What should we say to them now, 15 years after 9/11, about an event they’ve heard tell of but can’t remember?
Perhaps we can say this. There is a thing called the West and it is worth defending. There are some, and there will always be some, who wish it ill. If we forget who we are and where we come from, if we forget that we are part of the West and its long history, our gratitude will vanish, and we will become complicit in its loss. We will no longer recognize ourselves, and events like September 11th, like the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Somme, will be empty to us.
But perhaps this will be too much for our youngest students. For them, our duty is to initiate them into the West by encouraging the habits of mind and heart that have traditionally been its purview – courage, moderation, justice, responsibility, prudence, friendship, and wonder. In this way, we preserve something more than the memory of September 11th. We preserve the West, and there is no more fitting tribute to the men and women who died that day.