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OpinionColumnistsLane Filler

How long will we remember Sept. 11?

Visitors peek into the museum at the 9/11

Visitors peek into the museum at the 9/11 Museum & Memorial in lower Manhattan on April 29. Credit: AP/Mary Altaffer

Of all the changes the terrorist attacks of 9/11 brought, security-mad and sensible, patriotic and preventive, heroic and haphazard, one offers a special opportunity for contemplation: the mandate of 20 states that the day be taught about in their schools.

In New York, discussion of the events in eighth and 11th grades is required. The academic standards in four states — Georgia, Louisiana, Montana and Texas — require mentioning Osama bin Laden or al-Qaida by name.

Today, the requirements don’t seem misplaced. Students live now in a world shaped by those plane strikes. Students who graduate not understanding the attacks and the changes they set into motion aren’t properly educated.

But for how long will 9/11 be central to the stories of the world, the nation and New York?

Maybe 100 years? Perhaps not 200 years, though, right? And almost certainly not 1,000 years.

Experience tells us the memory will fade in future generations, because time passes and because the next great slaughter, and the one after that, will claim our attention.

We no longer much discuss Charles Whitman killing 15 and injuring 31, shooting from the University of Texas bell tower, because he did it 55 years ago, and because the carnage at Sandy Hook is more recent, and Parkland more recent still.

They all matter. They all fade. The ones that happened hundreds or thousands of years ago hardly ring a bell now.

There is always fresh grist for the mill of malice.

Pollsters reported last year that 63% of Americans under 40 do not know that 6 million Jews died in the Holocaust, and 10% had never heard the term.

But pollsters don’t even bother to query kids (or adults) on their knowledge of the genocide against Armenians by the Turks during World War I, or the slaughter of 2 million Cambodians by the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s.

The Political Instability Task Force, a U.S. government-funded research project, reports that between 1956 and 2016, 53 genocides occurred worldwide, killing about 50 million people. The Wikipedia entry on the subject details 221 "named" massacres in recorded history.

It does not minimize the horrors and heroism and evil of Sept. 11 to understand that our grandchildren will not feel it as we do, and their grandchildren will barely register it. They'll have their own touchstones and heartbreaks, their own enemies and retributions.

What do we remember from the far, far past? The good things, the extraordinary stories, unique breakthroughs and heroes.

We remember Gutenberg inventing the printing press 600 years ago, and Aristotle redefining our intellectual lexicon 2,500 years ago.

We remember the Magna Carta, signed by King John 800 years ago, and Hammurabi, the king whose code of laws introduced the presumption of innocence 4,000 years ago.

We immortalize Jesus and Buddha and Confucius and Mohammad, who instructed us on morality and spirituality. We remember storytellers, like Homer and Aristophanes, who taught us about humanity and war. We still read of heroes like Achilles and Hector, and muses like Helen of Troy.

But the only way savagery like 9/11 could be central to our societal memories forever, still talked about regularly and taught in schools meaningfully hundreds of years from now, is if it were unique, the final such massacre that taught the world better.

And 20 years on, it’s clear that’s not the case.

Columnist Lane Filler's opinions are his own.