Remembering Sept. 11

Tomorrow, Sept. 11, is the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos’ 100th birthday. His centenary is a big day for his family. Ilocos Norte Rep. Imelda Marcos and her children are celebrating this day with a Mass, a program, and a lunch at the Libingan ng mga Bayani — to which they have invited the nation’s highest public officials and other dignitaries.

President Duterte, a professed Marcos admirer and political ally, has declared Sept. 11 a special nonworking public holiday in Ilocos Norte, to enable Ilocanos to commemorate the life of a man who, despite his ignominious ouster from the presidency in 1986, continues to be revered as an important figure in that part of the country. Ilocos Norte Gov. Imee Marcos presided over the Ilocos commemoration with a two-day forum at the Mariano Marcos State University in Batac, the former president’s hometown. Through lectures, symposia, and debates, students were asked to reflect on the legacy of Marcos and his place in the nation’s history.

For a very different reason, 9/11, as this date is better known, is also a day of remembrance in the United States and elsewhere in the world. Sixteen years ago, on that fateful day, four American passenger planes were hijacked in midflight by 19 al-Qaida terrorists. Two of the planes were plunged like guided missiles into the twin towers of the World Trade Center in downtown New York City. Another was driven into the sprawling Pentagon building, the headquarters of the US defense department, in Arlington, Virginia. A fourth airliner, which the hijackers had steered toward the White House and the US Capitol in Washington, DC, crashed instead into an open field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania, after some passengers tried to overpower the hijackers and take control of the aircraft.  Nearly 3,000 were killed and 6,000 were wounded in these coordinated attacks. At no other time has America felt so threatened and so vulnerable.

While only a few people might be aware of Sept. 11 as Marcos’ natal day, those of a certain age will always remember 9/11 as the most important signifier for global terrorism. That day marked the advent of a new type of war, one that targets innocent civilians in order to sow public terror, and whose main purpose is to avenge historic injustices and call attention to fundamentalist disaffection with the modern world.

Every commemoration is a struggle of narratives, a struggle to reconfigure the past in order to steer the present in the direction of a desired future. In this regard, the memorialization of the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the celebration of Marcos’ centenary are no exception.

Among most Americans, 9/11 was the justification for the war that subsequently destroyed Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria.  It has made no difference that none of these countries could be accused of complicity in the 9/11 attacks. America’s most admired heroes are the soldiers it sends abroad to pursue the enemy, and to keep that country safe from those who seek to harm it.

This, however, is not how young people from those countries remember these events. They accuse America of unjustly attacking Iraq on the pretext that Saddam Hussein kept weapons of mass destruction, a claim that was never proven.  A whole new generation of radical Islamists everywhere has been nurtured by passionate hatred for America, which they see as the incarnation of evil in the world.  They have matched the arrogance of their enemy with their own brand of senseless brutality.

The amalgamation of memory, history and representation is no less evident in the controversy surrounding the legacy of Marcos.  At the opening of the Marcos 100 Forum, Imee Marcos quoted her father as saying, “History is not done with me yet.”  I suppose she meant to say that, in time, the Filipino people will realize their folly and finally acknowledge the heroic role that Marcos had played in the nation’s life. That time might come soon, if the dictator’s son and namesake becomes vice president.

“Why is it that this debate, this argument of who our President Marcos was, continues to burn unabated, a hundred years after his birth?” the daughter asks. In a barefaced allusion to the mythical noble family from the North in the popular TV series “Game of Thrones,” she answers: “Indeed, if the North remembers, winter has not come yet for the legacy of Ferdinand Marcos.” She may as well have said: If the North remains faithful, who cares about history? Given the multiplicity of possible meanings, the truth of history has indeed become more difficult to grasp, making it easier to be loyal than to be truthful.

Contrary to what Imee may think, the debate over the Marcos years is happening not just because of questions about who her father really was, but also because of the complex rethinking of the craft of history itself.   Where history used to begin with a recitation of the facts, today it is likely to start with an interrogation of the “facts.”  All this because of the growing recognition of the limits of language and narration by which past events are grasped.

A consequence of this may sometimes be “an exhaustion of the historical experience itself”—a sense of exasperation over what one is obliged to remember as a way of honoring the dead. That’s the way young Filipinos are starting to feel as the Marcoses exploit their closeness to Mr. Duterte to speed up the rehabilitation of the Marcos name, and pave the way for their return to Malacañang.