The United States distinctively remembers the 1970s as the era of hippies—when the Beatles were blasted on stereos, anti-Vietnam protests unified many of those in their twenties, and hallucinogens were on the rise. In deep contrast, the late 1970s in Cambodia will forever be remembered by Cambodians as a time of genocide. A time defined by families being uprooted from their homes and being separated while the Khmer Rouge regime under the leadership of Pol Pot, attempted to turn Cambodia into a socialist agrarian society. It’s mind boggling to consider that these events occurred during the same time. Their group remembers this past based on a series of events that occurred in close proximity to them, and impacted “their people.” This phenomenon is called collective memory, referring to how a group of people remember the past based on similar, large scale experiences or happenings that make history and forever change the landscape of the world. For instance, Germany’s collective memory of World War II has made Germans very culturally sensitive, but also now a progressive nation that has used its dark past to recreate a brighter future.
Each generation has several collective memories that has shaped their lives and also serve as as relatable conversation points. While recently speaking with my step-sister, I learned that one of her professor’s earliest collective memories was when the United States landed on the moon. He was four years old and vividly remembers playing with blocks in his living room as his family gathered around the television to watch as the U.S won the race to space. Generations later the collective memory of my time, as a United States’ citizen, is unequivocally 9/11.
Because collective memories are often marked by milestones, they have the ability to drastically change the course of history or at least record it in a certain light - for better or for worse. Over the past few weeks I have asked many people between the ages of 18-27 what their first collective memory is and nearly everyone, except our editor Jessica Hoefer, has said 9/11. Hoefer’s first collective memory is the case of Cuban Elian Gonzalez. If you don’t remember, try google image searching “Elian Gonzalez.” For those who don’t know, this was the case of the young Cuban fleeing Cuba with his mom and after having made it to Florida with his mother having died en route, Gonzalez was forced to return to his father in Cuba. This was Hoefer’s first memory of guns and they involved the U.S. federal agents pointing them at a boy her age. So, as you can imagine, it made a lasting impression. Nevertheless, as a New Yorker with many family and friends who worked in the FDNY and NYPD, as an American who heard the sirens, saw the smoke and watched the world change right in her backyard, 9/11 without a doubt will always remain Hoefer’s most powerful collective memory.
The craziest element about collective memories, such as 9/11, is that they evoke such extreme emotions and precise memories. Most people can recount exactly what they were doing when they found out or watched what was happening. I remember dropping my spoon into my large bowl of Cinnamon Life before heading to second grade where our whole school was eerily silent. Meanwhile, my sister distinctively remembers my mom screeching and then bursting into tears and later, her pre-school was canceled because of the attack on America.
Furthermore, a memory that has this power and influence over a mass of people drastically changes the trajectory of history. In the case of 9/11, to date the world’s deadliest terrorist attack killing nearly 3,000 people, deepened the divide of the West versus the rest. This landmark event was the beginning of the “War on Terror.” Rightly so, the world, and the United States was scared. Something of this magnitude had never happened before. As the military power, the U.S. immediately took action in defense of the free world being attacked.
This one collective memory changed our world. Division between the spheres (east and west) had long been in place, but this attack significantly deepened the divide. It not only hurt Americans, but it further victimized innocent people - from civilians in the Middle East to civilians in the United States, Australia, England, etc. Those who looked like they were from the east, and were living in the west became the next wave of victims. The rise of Islamophobia did not focus on the distinction between Muslim extremists and the overwhelmingly peaceful majority of Muslims. The terrorists wanted to dismantle the western world, but in turn they also ended up waging war on their own people. Since 9/11, the Middle East, collectively, has been cast as a land of terrorism —a notion that had led to the War on Terror, which includes the Wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Since 2001, the Middle East has been perceived as the land of terrorism and Islamic extremism, but what would be the case if 9/11 never happened? Would extremism have continued to rise, ultimately leading to the creation and height of ISIS in 2014? Would Islamophobia exist? Would people be so scared of people who look different than they do? Moreover, what needs to change for this global trajectory to veer from the “us versus them” stigma?
Can the next generation’s first collective memory be one that brings people, of different walks of life, who practice different religions, together? And if so, what would that look like?
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