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The power of shared experience

September 8, 2011

In 2008, James Marsh made a documentary titled “Man on Wire,” about the tightrope walk that high-wire artist Philippe Petit performed at the top of the Twin Towers of New York’s World Trade Center, back when the buildings were still under construction. The daring act—not only physically risky, but requiring a bold circumvention of rules and security systems—provides a poignant bookend to the destructive act that marked the end of those towers on September 11, 2001, 10 years ago this weekend. The ingenuity, individuality and joyous freedom that Petit evinced in his tightrope walking feat—which, according to one of the policemen sent after him, was better described as “tightrope dancing” than “tightrope walking”—is in some way emblematic of the spirit which America, at its best, can embody, and hence of what the towers themselves, at their best, can be seen as representing.

Marsh included no mention of the events of 9/11 in “Man on Wire,” prompting complaints from some quarters. But his reason for that omission is, we think, well explained by an observation he made about one of the things that prompted him to make the movie: “I felt that the wrong people owned the memories.”

Marsh’s comment started us thinking about this 10th anniversary of 9/11 and how it can best be commemorated. In a way, we can see what he means. The memory of 9/11 has become a tool, for instance, for fear-mongers to erode our civil liberties, voluntarily giving up, in legislation like the Patriot Act and practices like government wire-tapping, precisely those values that we say the terrorists wanted to take from us. It has become an excuse to marginalize legitimate members of our community, like Muslims. Against this background, one might well argue that it is better to forget 9/11 and instead remember and celebrate the national aspiration and vision that the two towers represented.

But in another way, we feel that the power of the 9/11 event itself is precisely that the memories of that day can have no “wrong owners,” because they belong to everybody. There is something about such striking, seminal occasions—the assassination of President Kennedy is another—that, regardless of how grim the event in question, have the power to unite us because we were all there together as witnesses. Whatever other interests, backgrounds or beliefs we may have, that one shocking moment and our memories of it have been carried forward, become a part of all of us and draw us together.