The act of remembering exists in a binary relationship with the act of forgetting. To remember something seems to guard against its forgetting, and this we may say is a good thing. Though almost as quickly we realise that some things ought to be forgotten to move on, ‘forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us’. Yet, this Christian prayer notably opts for forgiveness, not merely forgetting. It implies, therefore, that forgiveness may be an act of both remembering and forgetting in so far as one forgives by forgetting, but in so doing, remembers what one is forgiving. What it also introduces, is the concept of justice, for a notion of a wrong that has been committed is nestled in the very idea of forgiveness. And so, the boundary between remembering and forgetting is (on one level) more porous with residual links beyond the quotidian semantic field in which these words operate.
To complicate the act of remembering and forgetting is important on a day such as today, given that it is the 10th anniversary of the July 7th terrorist attacks. Many up and down the country will take time to remember, talk about and mark in some other way the horror and tragedy of that day. But it is precisely because of this, this social memorialising that every community and country engages in regarding particular dates in its history, that one ought to pay attention to the complexity of gestures of public commemoration and their role in shaping collective memories and public consciousness more broadly. This is not to detract of course from the private grief of those directly affected, to whom all sympathies must be extended unreservedly; nor from the tragedy and barbarism of vile actions committed for warped political ends. Rather, it is to expend effort and energy in remembering in its (im)possible fullness that recent history shared by everyone who was witness to it.
By drawing attention to the complicated nature of remembrance, one can foreground the proclivity to produce memory through an element of selection, an element of exclusion, and an element of forgetting. But this forgetting is of a different order to the one that simultaneously marks-and- unmarks itself in the concomitance of forgiveness. Because of the conspicuous nature of public memorials, memory is ossified and transformed into a totem to serve political, sociological and cultural ends and thus, inevitably, exists more as something ‘enchanted’ and less so to be learnt from. Here forgetting is operational and not (when linked conceptually with forgiveness) attitudinal. Rather than foster a frame of mind that is critical and a temperament that is ethical, such forgetting produces a kind of ‘remembering’ that is either enervated or (at its worst) pestiferous, energised as it is by more hateful emotions.
Memory that is produced in this way is unable to deal with complexity, contradictions and doubts. It necessarily requires a strong policing of the perimeter that defines what can and cannot be remembered and an erasure of details that do not fall within certain narrowly defined lines. For instance, a too strong a concentration on the violence of July 7th forgets (perhaps momentarily) the humanity that fellow commuters and others demonstrated when everyone came to the aid of those in need. Similarly, it can only deal partially with the excellent work of the professionals involved in the aftermath because it cannot fully address the fact that the protocols and training of these professionals is the result of London having been bombed before (and thus, the ‘tragedy of 7/7’ is also uncomfortably relative to other tragedies of the past). Such a memorial cannot also acknowledge openly, that London and the UK demonstrated great composure and equanimity following the bombings, in that reprisals against Muslims were not of the degree that Muslims in other parts of the world are fearful of (of course, those who suffered harassment may take exception to such a view and being grateful of this is itself problematic). To acknowledge this reality would be to simultaneously frame the Muslim community and divide the chorus of oneness that (rightly) needs to be sounded when such attacks happen. Indeed, to prevent this from happening, those who perpetrated such violence have to be excluded from any community so that ‘we’ can stand together against ‘them’. But no sooner has such a gesture been affirmed, the question of these men’s motives springs up and the (albeit twisted) social imaginaries in which their minds were shaped. But this too must be forgotten or admitted in limited fashion, as indeed does much of the above, for whenever such details are included in the memorialisation of such events they are pressed into the service of forgetting the most important fact: what might ‘we’ have done in what happened to ‘us’? This heresy cannot be remembered nor tolerated; it is in fact through its very active forgetting/erasing that the collective memory and memorialisation is born.
What other dates, faces and lives, we should ask, have to be actively excluded to produce the solemnity of a given memory? The conspicuous public nature of commemorations of dates across the world participate in this kind of ‘forgetting’; and it is this ‘kind’ of forgetting that we must guard against. Instead, the remembrance we should seek is the one where forgetting is intimately tied with forgiving, for only such an ethic will secure a remembering that is transformative and not mere ritual. In this we can learn from the Christian prayer: ‘forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us’. We may not all of us be saints, but we have enough sins to share amongst us. Let us remember the dead, everywhere.