Will they remember the 343?
A historian's look at how the future will view one of America's darkest moments
Sept. 11, 2001 was a life-defining moment and as the events of that day became known, we got a sense of history coming into play. As 9/11 now recedes into history, future generations will come to see that day in different terms and we can only imagine how they will view what happened.
Very little is certain and it is safe only to assume that if history is any guide to the future, events unforeseen will occur and render our inadequate predictions meaningless.
Sept. 11 briefly unified firefighters and increased public respect for firefighters. Recall how frequently you heard, "Thank you for your service."
Now a dozen years past, we don't hear the "thank you for your service" much, perhaps because the event grows more distant in time. Firefighters I talked to in the dark months after 9/11 described an overarching new view of a world where only the polar extremes of black and white existed; any intermediate shading was lost in the collapse of the towers, the destruction at the Pentagon, and the charred hole in the ground in rural Pennsylvania.
This "black and white" worldview incrementally transformed into an "us versus them" view as the recession cut into municipal fire budgets and angry taxpayers questioned firefighter salaries and pensions.
What I see now of 9/11 comes mostly from the metropolitan New York City and New Jersey area where there remains a steady, reverent and solemn memorializing of the 2,753 civilian victims and the 343.
Something has changed us since 9/11. Years of conflict, economic upheaval, and elected high-officials who place politics above leadership has tired us and almost demoralized us as a country. Cynicism and skepticism cuts a deep vein through public opinion forcing us to identify our tribe or faction, one group demonizing the other, with the fire service no exception.
The unity of 9/11 was fleeting and our collective cynicism seems poised to poison our views of everything, mixing the good with the bad. It is black and white; those not with us are against us.
In 40 or so years, Americans will number about 438 million. Nearly one in five will be an immigrant. In 12 years, the foreign-born share of the population will surpass the total from the last great wave of immigration seen over a century ago.
Latinos, now our largest minority group, will triple in size by 2050 and the non-Hispanic white population will become the minority. Our elderly will more than double by 2050, as the baby-boom generation enters so-called retirement.
The numbers of working-age Americans and their children will grow more slowly than the elderly population, shrinking as a share of total population and finding it more and more difficult to support the aging members of society.
The victims of 9/11 were a diverse group demographically speaking and maybe that will improve the likelihood of future generations sharing at least a small sense of connection to those we lost on 9/11. For it is only a sense of connection that gives us a desire to remember the past.
Realistically though, it is more probable that they will come to see 9/11 solely as a historic event, similar to how we now view Pearl Harbor.
The near things
There will be commemorations and memorials to those who were murdered and those who sacrificed their lives to save others, but the depth of symbolic emotion will fade in time. Let us hope then, that there will always remain at the very least this lesson — that the firefighters of FDNY put their lives at risk for other people and more than 300 paid the ultimate price.
As new significant events capture the thoughts of future generations, life will go on, the memory of the 343 will recede, and that is the point where history takes over. Geographer Waldo Tobler stated that the first law of geography is: "Everything is related to everything else, but near things are more related to each other."
I frequently borrow Tobler's Law and use it to think about history, adapting it as: "The nearer people and events are to you in place or time, the more important they are to you all the time."
I am a firefighter and so I care about other firefighters. If you live in or near New York City, you likely care about New York City and 9/11 will always be somewhere within in that frame of reference. All that we can presume is that if you are a firefighter, or you live in proximity to New York City, your world will include 9/11 and the 343, and the memory will not fade with time.
The sacrifice of so many to uphold a commitment to save lives is never easyto understand fully or to forget entirely. History provides the opportunity for future generations to remember the courage and humanity of the 343.