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Publisher's Note: Collective memories

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By Tom McDonald

Last month’s 10th anniversary of 9/11 got me to thinking about the national experiences that get etched into our collective memory. The ones in which we personally remember where we were and what we were doing when we first heard the news.

My parents remember the bombing of Pearl Harbor. I suppose that, intuitively, they knew it was going to change their world. As much as we’ve compared 9/11 to that “day of infamy,” it’s still hard for baby boomers to appreciate the weight of that day. The country was still struggling through hard times, and yet everyone stepped up and made incredible sacrifices. I can’t imagine our nation so united behind a single cause, although in the days immediately after the 2001 terrorist attacks, we got a brief glimpse of what it must have been like.

Of course, the attack on Pearl Harbor launched our nation into a brutal war against the Japanese. Today, the U.S. and Japan regularly trade goods and culture, as well as a mutual admiration. That’s how much things can change.

I remember standing in line behind the water fountain at my elementary school and hearing someone say that John F. Kennedy had been shot. A few years later, I learned about Martin Luther King’s assassination. I was quite young, but I recognized the significance of both those events.

Later I would come to realize that Kennedy’s death would be remembered for innocence lost, while King’s death would elevate the greatest American dream of our time.

Then there was the loss of the space shuttle Challenger in 1986. I suppose that shocked our aspirations to their very foundations. We were forced to recognize our limitations.

My two daughters share in the collective memory of 9/11. They didn’t understand it, but they knew it was big. Maybe they figured it out at school, before they got home. Or maybe they realized it when they saw the tears in their parents’ eyes. Either way, they knew. I guess it’s the intensity of the moment that sears such events into our consciousness.

Of course, there are other events of equal or greater significance that don’t happen in one swift blow, so they are not burned into our memory in the same way. The ending of the Cold War changed everything, but I don’t remember a single day over all others. And while computers have revolutionized how we live, work and process information, there’s no clearly defined pivotal moment in which that change occurred.

Maybe we should remember the day that Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web — on Christmas Day in 1990, he successfully pulled off the first transfer of information via the Internet. Or, perhaps we should recall how, in 1994, he made his work available to others without a patent or royalties requirement, thereby making the Web free for all to use. That single decision changed the world and shaped the future, but most of us aren’t even aware of it.

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Now, our children stand on the brink of an unimaginable future. America is at an economic crossroads — we may rise above our dysfunctional government and overcome the greed that stifles our better nature, or we can sink into a slump we’ll never recover from.

Moreover, climate change will likely cause great future catastrophes, and we will be forced to finally address problems that we’ve denied were coming.

And of course, technology will continue to create artificial intelligence. Computers will become smarter than humans, if they aren’t already. Combined with medical advancements, human life will be transformed.

The world  is changing so fast it’s hard to keep up, but one thing remains clear: We are still all in this together. That, more than anything else, is worth collectively remembering.

Tom McDonald is editor and publisher of the Optic. He may be reached at 505-425-6796, ext. 237, or tmcdonald@lasvegasoptic.com.