Domestic Tranquility

The editor of Teaching Tolerance reflects on the lessons of Sept. 11.

Never forget.

From Concord Bridge to the Alamo, from the Maine to Pearl Harbor, the vow to remember has been a rallying cry in moments of crisis across our history. In the wake of Sept. 11, this simple imperative, accompanying images of the billowing twin towers or the U.S. flag, seemed to distill for many Americans the emotional fallout of the terrorist attacks.

Four months later, the smoke at Ground Zero has cleared, but easy answers elude us. Claims of "lost innocence" may ring false or simplistic to some, but who can dispute the evocation of Before and After?

Only four months, yet we strain to recall what domestic tranquility felt like. Newly habituated to fear, anger, grief, indignation, we wonder if we'll ever feel it again. The catchphrase only begs the question: What is it that we must not forget?

Long before Sept. 11, the approach of our magazine's 10th anniversary this month had already prompted a measure of retrospection. We marveled at what we had failed to imagine in our tiny office a decade ago. Who, besides a small band of visionaries, foresaw that a new technology would soon transform the way we learn and communicate and even think? Where were the predictions of schoolhouse massacres by young White males? Why were we so stunned to find out, in the twilight of the 20th century, that the scourge of lynching had not been eradicated after all?

Unanticipated developments, we realized, have shaped the form and content and mission of our work as significantly as any strategic plan.

Now, the unimaginable strikes again, this time at a new order of magnitude. For educators, the backdrop of terror and war presents a special challenge. A reporter called not long after the September attacks to ask, "Do current events negate the lessons of tolerance, mediation and peace? What do we tell the children now?"

Memory may provide an answer.

Beyond the commemoration of lives lost, courage summoned and community spirit outpoured, we can preserve a less heroic but equally instructive legacy -- the memory of being assaulted at home; the memory of being hated for where we live or who we are; the memory of not knowing when or how or from which direction the next blow will come.

We can remember not in order to harbor vengeance toward our violators but to foster a different justice -- for those to whom such violations are nothing new.

Perhaps the lessons of Sept. 11 will include the recognition that, in many quarters, domestic tranquility has been a myth all along.

Never forget.

—Jim Carnes

Illustration of person holding and looking at laptop.

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