Today is the 17th anniversary of 9/11. It is rightly filled with memorials and remembrances in an effort to both reflect on those events and honor those who lost their lives in the tragedy.
For my part, I wanted to share something I read last week about the challenge of remembering the past. It’s an article in The Guardian written by Stanisław Aronson, a survivor of the Warsaw ghetto in World War 2. Although it’s worth reading in its entirety, I wanted to highlight two things I found interesting. First, this quote:
Confronting lies sometimes means confronting difficult truths about one’s self and one’s own country. It is much easier to forgive yourself and condemn another, than the other way round; but this is something that everyone must do.
There’s a deep truth here, and it’s one we too easily forget. Another way to say it is this: If we do not confront difficult truths about ourselves, then we cannot meaningfully confront lies. When a difficult truth presents itself as an obstacle, we can either confront it honestly or deny it as a lie. If we deny it as a lie, we may see short term results, but those results do not make it less true. Worse, we have only made the inevitable confrontation harder because now we must not only confront the difficult truth, but also admit we were wrong before when we called it a lie. This makes our subsequent attempts to confront lies as lies seem like Chicken Little calling out, once again, that “the sky is falling!”
I have spoken about this in abstract terms mostly because I don’t want the politics of an example to cloud the principle. Ultimately though, examples are helpful in seeing how this principle plays out. The nature of confronting lies and its relationship to confronting difficult truths and forgiveness is a core Judeo-Christian belief illustrated several times in the Bible.
Though Biblical examples can be helpful, they may still feel remote to modern Americans. So let’s pick a hotly debated political concern: abortion, climate change, Trump’s collusion with Russian to win the Presidency, network neutrality, how to handle Civil War monuments, or any other concern that seems to cause both republicans and democrats to go a little crazy. None of these issues are simple. None of them consist of a single “truth” or a single “lie.” Are we just talking past each other because neither side is willing to confront the difficult truth in the topic that the other is concerned about? What difficult truth in your pet issue might you be avoiding? Could it be that NFL players taking a knee during the National Anthem is actually disrespectful? Could it also be true that those players are right about social justice issues not being addressed unless they raise the issue in this manner?
Second, and briefly, I wanted to point out that World War 2 started just over 20 years after the Treaty of Versailles. I am pretty skeptical of generational theory, but I do think there’s something about time that causes society to forget faster than individuals would, and I think, perhaps, 20 years is a good measure of our societal tendency to forget. The Merkel quote that starts this article (e.g., “When the generation that survived the war is no longer here, we’ll find out whether we have learned from history.”) is apt, but it may not be pessimistic enough. Certainly, people in a position to understand the warning signs in Germany in the 1930’s failed to act on them. Are we similarly failing to act today, 17 years after 9/11? Has that event so colored our outlook that we simply cannot see the difficult truth in front of us?