Time to Forget ‘Never Forget’
When I finally arrived home, the only thing I cared about was holding my 10-month-old daughter. Of all the abstract flashes of memory from that day, it’s always first. There are many others, of course. Not only of the day itself, but of the weeks and months that followed.
It was a day when time stopped, beginning a year that would never end. Through the passage of time, all of those disparate memories have coalesced into a solitary emotion, one that no single word will ever describe.
And how could it?
You cannot apply a standard definition to the most emotionally fraught and life shaping period of one’s life. It was a solitary year that bifurcated my existence into two distinct parts – before and after. I entered that time one person, and I left it someone else. For better or worse, I can’t really be sure. Others may have a more definitive view.
Yet, as we stumble our way into another September, I can already sense the feeling of dread, it grows in anticipation of our annual season of ‘Never Forget’. It’s nearly here.
The first several years ‘Never Forget’ was a clarion call, fueled by anger, on a quest for vengeance. To me, it meant retribution for what had been done to my city and my people. It also meant vindication for what we were doing to them and theirs. It was primal and unabashedly ugly.
I didn’t care. ‘Never Forget’ felt good. It gave me comfort.
But as all things must pass, so did my interpretation of ‘Never Forget’. It was no longer a call to arms. Those directly responsible eventually had been dealt with. After a decade, the term began to meander in meaning. It became a platitude in search of purpose.
Surely, we would never forget the victims, nor the heroic acts of that time. They are preserved and well-documented. And rightfully so.
Anyone who was alive will always remember those things.
And those that weren’t, will not.
History tells us that is how it goes. Do you remember the Alamo? No, we no longer need to parrot a catch-phrase for that September, just as we don’t need nomenclature for any personal tragedy experienced through less spectacular circumstances.
We mourned before. We mourned after. We mourn today. We will mourn tomorrow. The past 20 years, and especially the last 18 months, exemplify the non-discriminatory nature of misery.
It spares no one. It is relentless.
About ten years ago I began to look at Septembers with a sense of bewilderment, and a few years soon after, with indignation. At the forefront was a once poignant remembrance at Ground Zero, that metastasized into a macabre ceremony of public self-flagellation.
Reciting the names of the dead. The same readings and prayers, made by the usual cast of characters. Dramatic gongs marking the exact times of each impact and each collapse…If the purpose of this annual spectacle was to perpetually relive the horror and aftermath of that day, the trauma visible on the faces of family still participating served as evidence of its accomplishment.
How can you forget something you stubbornly insist on reliving? Who is this meant to help?
Yet ‘Never Forget’ persisted. It was already embedded in the American psyche, now a patriotic social media obligation – enthusiastically shared with photos of the twin towers – usually ornamented with a red, white and blue ribbon. Some included eagles, flags and sunsets. Some of the visual tributes have all of those things and more. The creativity of such virtue signaling is only limited by one’s star-spangled imagination.
I know this because, for a long time, I played along too.
* * *
Now, if ‘Never Forget’ won’t fade away, I wish the directive would become more specific. At this point, what is it exactly that I am not supposed to forget?
Is it the graphic images? The disbelief? The anxiety? The anger? The despair? The fear?
Are we just talking about the Top 40-type mainstream shared memories? I won’t recount them. You know the lyrics. You’ve seen the documentaries. If you want to brush up, you can check your local listings this week. All the go-to favorites will be televised.
Or perhaps it’s the more obscure indy-band ‘deep cuts’ that we are not supposed to forget? You know, the memories that are usually unplugged, introspective and understated. Sort of like The Shins before Garden State.
Well, there was the weekend after it happened. We went up to stay with friends in Connecticut just to get a break from New York. Us asking if we could retreat there in case the next attack was a dirty bomb. Them telling us they were expecting their first-born child. Me visibly dismayed at the thought of bringing an innocent into this new found state of catastrophe. Talk about awkward.
Or there was the time I screamed at my wife for letting the baby touch the newly delivered mail. Why? I was paranoid it might contain traces of Anthrax. Do you remember when people were stock piling Cipro? I do.
I’ll also never forget the day outside my office when a metal object was thrown out of the window of a passing car. It landed with a clang onto the side walk and scattered pedestrians who looked to take cover. But praise be, no boom. That incident was far more interesting than the countless building evacuations due to bomb threats. Remember those?
Of course, who could forget the individuals we all knew who would cringe at the sight of an airplane overhead or incredulously refused to fly anywhere for years after? That irrational fear has only recently been surpassed by vaccinated people who still wear surgical masks outside.
But I digress.
Then there was my own personal and solemn contemplation of what happened in September, which led to a moment that October when I admitted to myself that I no longer believed in God. After all, how could He let this happen? He was either a sadistic prick or He did not exist.
I settled on the later.
The loss I felt in that moment of clarity unnerved me profoundly. It shattered every belief I held my entire life up to that point. That revelation still depresses me today.
So, in the last desperate spasms of ‘Never Forget’ I imagine some will say its current value may be found in how the nation united after the attacks. How we Americans put aside our differences and came together as one.
It’s a very nice thought, but it’s kumbaya bullshit. That mystic chord of memory swelled for maybe a month. And it was cold consolation considering all that was happening – everywhere and with everyone.
Regardless, the better angels of our nature have not been seen since.
* * *
The hard truth is that after 20 years of never forgetting, it has become painfully apparent:
We remember everything, except who we were before 9/11.
Is it just coincidence that Rip Van Winkle slept exactly as long? He awoke from his slumber in a New York he did not recognize. Somehow, in the same precise time span, we’ve managed to experience a bizarro opposite outcome.
After two decades, we no longer recognize ourselves.
When I held my daughter that September evening 20 years ago, I know that same scene played out all across the country. It was part of shared experience, revealing to us what truly mattered. We swore to protect them and do our best to make the world a better place for them to grow and fulfill their dreams. As dark as it might have been in those days, we knew we had an obligation to those children.
And yet we failed them.
That so much was made clear last week. I have no doubt that David Espinoza, Jared Schmitz, Rylee McCollum, Dylan Merola, and Kareem Nikoui were held close that night in September by loving parents. Like me, I’m sure their parents worried about the future and the world their babies would inherit. Like my daughter, on that night, they were all still shy of their first birthday.
Those infants were just five of the fallen 13 American service members who were senselessly slaughtered by a suicide bomber in Afghanistan. I weep just typing that sentence.
The fact that these American babies and toddlers of 2001 were the last sacrifices made upon the altar of Afghanistan makes me ashamed of this country on a level I never thought possible.
Unfortunately, those directly responsible refuse to hold themselves accountable. Not for the calamity this nation unleashed this summer nor for the twenty years before it. We just transitioned from a president who was embarrassing, to another who has completely humiliated us. Both seemingly never at fault, congratulating their own failures. Of course, the two previous administrations and their masters of war are more culpable as thousands of our soldiers and countless civilians were left to die in places we had no business being.
So much blame to go around, and no one willing to take it.
* * *
How many years have we spent distracted and enraged by things that don’t actually matter? We may not have run out of problems, but we sure act as if we did. When ‘who can pee where’ and ‘how cakes are decorated’ became important political flashpoints, we lost the plot.
While we have been looking down at our phones – high-tech navel-gazing – we have been divided and conquered by a ruling class that has no regard or respect for any of us. Unelected bureaucrats empowered by elected incompetents are now our masters. We deserve them. All of them.
One by one, year by year, first in the name of safety, and recently in the name of health, we willingly have given away our freedoms to institutions we mistrust and can’t hold accountable.
Is it any surprise we find ourselves accepting a reality that slips deeper into a world warned of by Orwell and Huxley and described by Philip K. Dick? We believe nothing and trust no one, yet have effectively allowed a technocracy to replace our republic.
Public discourse is dead. Everyone is afraid to say what they actually think because if they are not de-platformed by the tech oligarchy, they may risk cancellation by a nameless, faceless digital mob. They wield incredible power because few are brave enough to stand up to them.
Is it not terrifying that someone can lose their livelihood for the sin of being human? Or just young and stupid?
Make no mistake, today we are ruled by fear. Better to just keep your head down and mouth shut. It’s the inevitable outcome for a society that has fully-embraced a culture of victimization.
We’ve completely lost our nerve.
Today we stand a fragile and spoiled people quick to cancel school because it might snow tomorrow. We are cowards for letting children struggle to breathe because of a virus we know won’t harm them. We are weak because we hate the people we disagree with and are offended by everything they say.
But most of all, we are sheep for letting it all happen.
Is it just coincidence that this shift in mindset began with those terrorist attacks on the homeland 20 years ago? Isn’t that really the legacy of ‘Never Forget”? To never forget being afraid?
America was no utopia before 9/11, but it was a far better place than it is today.
A lot of damage has been done over the past two decades, and much of it may be irreparable. I‘m not sure if it’s too late to course correct, but I do know I’m not going to live in fear any longer.
It’s time to forget 9/11 and the path it has taken us. Rather, let’s remember and redeem the brave, resilient people we were before that September.
This piece also appears in the author’s substack newsletter Sailing to Byzantium.