It’s 9/11 again. And along with it comes the chorus of pleas to “never forget” along with hashtags of “where were you?” But what does it mean to never forget? How could we possibly ever forget something so traumatic? I will never be able to erase those images, for the rest of my life. The repeated slow motion loop of a jumbo jet slamming into a building. The plumes of smoke and dust as first one, and then another tower collapses. How could we ever forget that? The horrific scenes of ash-gray dust blanketing everything like snow, of people running panicked down canyon-like avenues, chased by a growing spread of ash and smoke and dust like something from a horrible Michael Bay movie. How could we forget?
But what does it matter where I was? Why would anyone care that I was sitting transfixed in front of a small portable TV in a shoddy bunkhouse on the Camp Robinson Wildlife Demonstration Area near Mayflower, Arkansas? My story doesn’t matter. I wasn’t there. I wasn’t breathing that choking dust and smoke, I wasn’t rushing into an already-doomed building in a futile attempt at rescuing people trapped by a blazing inferno of jet fuel and office furniture. I wasn’t clinging to the side of a burning building, 900 feet in the air, trying to decide whether to jump to my death or be burned alive. My story isn’t important. So forgive me if I sound crass, but I don’t care where you were when you heard the news. I’m not interested in your 9/11 story, whether you were sitting on your sofa watching the TV or sitting in a classroom. Because that’s your moment, not mine. And it’s not the story of 9/11. That’s not the part we’re supposed to remember.
Our brain is a funny organ. When something shocking occurs the brain switches into a “record everything” mode. Normally it erases the tapes after a few days or months or years, saving storage space for the truly important things. But on truly horrific days like the 11th of September, 2001, our brains record every detail of that day for posterity. Which is why everyone now has their own “where I was” story. But that’s not what it means to never forget.
Never forget isn’t about remembering that you had a bowl of Cheerios that morning and were wearing a plaid flannel shirt and Carhartt brown duck pants as you sat down and turned on the Today Show to check the weather report before going out to track down your radio-collared quail for the day. Never forget isn’t about remembering how you never left the house that entire day, but instead sat motionless and glued to the TV in a state of shock. Because that story doesn’t matter.
What it means to never forget the events of that day is that rather than fixate on the mundane details of your own “where I was” story, you should remember the feelings. Remember the sick ache in your guts when you knew that the towers would collapse. Remember the urgent sense of panic you felt after the first one collapsed and you knew that surely as you were sitting there staring at your empty bowl of Cheerios that the second tower would come down too. Remember the way you pleaded and hoped like hell that whoever was still inside got out before it fell. Remember the shock, the anger, the sense of helplessness. The feeling of having been punched in the guts. Remember the hot tears that fell down your face.
Remember the xenophobia and paranoia that swept the nation. The beatings of innocent Sikhs for having the audacity to wear a turban in a post-911 America. Remember the urgent need to do something, anything, to strike back, to get revenge. Remember cheering the Northern Alliance as it swept through Afghanistan, pushing the Taliban further into their isolated mountain refuges. Remember a smug George Dubya in a flight suit landing on a carrier under a banner of Mission Accomplished. Remember no fly lists. Remember taking your shoes off to board airplanes. Remember the underwear bomber and the shoe bomber.
Remember an invasion of another country that had nothing to do with that fateful day, but somehow we were convinced that it did and we were led into simultaneous middle eastern wars. Remember the nebulous and undefined war on terror that made everyone a suspect. You’re either with us or against us. Remember the inanity of Freedom Fries. Of politicians joining hands and singing on the Capitol steps while passing laws in the name of patriotism that took away our civil liberties, allowed our own government to spy on us.
Remember the thousands more lives lost in battle fighting in the country’s longest war, chasing a relentless enemy long after the mastermind had been killed. Remember the bankrupting of the country, the recession caused in no small part by the enormous war spending bills. Freedom isn’t free. Remember yellow ribbons and flags on every house.
Remember the drones, silent invisible killers far overhead. Wiping out wedding party after wedding party in endless cases of mistaken identity. Remember waterboarding and extraordinary rendition. Remember Blackwater mercenaries gunning down innocent civilians.
Remember the surge, and boots on the ground. Remember “bomb bomb bomb, bomb bomb Iran.” Remember drill baby, drill. Remember Sadam, pulled from his rabbit hole with his Santa Claus beard. Remember the Arab spring, Qaddafi gunned down with his own pistol.
Remember televised beheadings and ancient cultural sites blown apart by TNT. Remember jihadi brides. Remember AK47’s in Nairobi shopping malls and dozens of innocents shot dead. Remember Guantanamo, a dumping ground for people no country wants. Remember Seal Team Six and spontaneous parties at the White House gates the night Bin Laden was killed.
Remember all of these things. They all sprang forth as a direct result of that sunny late summer day fourteen years ago. No, no one cares about your Cheerios and your Today Show memories. But never forget the rest. This is our world. Our America. Never forget.