Sixteen Years On: Never Forget?

The first thing I saw on Facebook this morning, September 11th, 2017, was a photo of the Twin Towers on a corporate page with the caption, “Never Forget.”

The first comment, which was apparently a troll attempt (given other factors), was along the lines of, “Hmph. Grief porn. Get over it.”

My knee-jerk reaction was shock edging toward outrage, though I said nothing because I don’t feed trolls. The more I thought about it, though (and the more photos in the same vein — “We Remember,” “Never Forget,” etc.), the more the phrase “grief porn” seemed to somehow fit.

We here in America bedeck ourselves in flags and sorrow every September 11th, and I’m not saying we shouldn’t. What happened that day was horrific beyond description — I remember walking into my dorm room (I was 18 years old, in my first few weeks of college) and seeing the news, thinking at first that it was some kind of urban apocalyptic movie that my roommate was watching. The word “LIVE” on the screen was a sinister shock, only to be immediately dwarfed as the second plane hit. The phone lines were jammed and I couldn’t reach my beloved great-uncle, who took his wife into the City fairly regularly to have lunch at the World Trade Center. I didn’t know for hours whether he was dead or alive. Each story was more nightmarish. Everything was scary. How could I possibly make any sense of a world like this? What would the future look like? Were more attacks coming in the following days? Nobody knew.

Terrorists committed despicable, heinous acts that day that wounded the very heart of these United States. America reeled. America cried. And America stood up and roared back with love for our fellow Americans. Never had I stood in such long lines to donate blood. Never before had I been turned away from volunteering for various service organizations because they had more than enough help.

And every time I cried, someone wrapped their arms around me — sometimes multiple someones, and our tears fell together. There were no barriers, no strangers. Black, white, Muslim, Pagan, professor, student. We held each other up and were not-OK, together. We were such a profound “WE” during that time.

Nothing is good about such an unspeakable tragedy. It was a powerful lesson, though. Deep down, below our toxic obsession with Otherness, we recognize each other for what we really are: simply human, equally vulnerable and hopeful in this crazy life. We’re stronger together, and the bad guys can’t win when our response to an unfathomable crisis is to bond vs. splintering apart. Are we still those people today?

I am not saying we shouldn’t remember.

What I am saying is that we should remember who and how we were immediately afterward. We should live like that, every day.

The lines to donate blood are long gone now. The Red Cross has a permanent shortage. Though volunteers have been plentiful with service organizations in the immediate aftermath of Harvey and now Irma, that’s once again the exception rather than the norm. Give it a few weeks and they’ll be begging for help again too.

We have retreated from each other again. From each Other, again. Charlottesville recently highlighted part of that with brutal clarity.

Let the terrorists’ names be forgotten in the cracks of history. But remember who we as a nation can be, and must be again, if 9/11 is to be more than an excuse to put up sad photos and to relive that national pain. That wound is not a political weapon; it is a reminder to us that we need each other.

We can’t bring back the lives we lost sixteen years ago by mourning them for one day each year. Let us honor the memory of those murdered in these unutterably terrible acts by healing other wounds, seeing to other needs. The need is always now.

Fred Rogers said his mother told him to “look for the helpers” in times of crisis. We don’t have to (and shouldn’t) wait for disaster to strike. Be one of the helpers for a lifetime.

That, to me, seems a much better way to Never Forget.