'Never Forget' Is Not Enough

'Never Forget' Is Not Enough

Today marks the 17th anniversary of the attacks on September 11, 2001. Each year, this day is a day of remembrance. Americans recall where they were when the World Trade Center came down. They remember the innocent people who died in New York, at the Pentagon, and on flight 93. They remember the police officers and firefighters who sacrificed their lives to save others.

Among those my age and younger, 9/11 seems most commonly remembered—or publicly acknowledged—with a two word refrain: never forget. The words appear all over social media, both on their own and superimposed over images of the World Trade Center, the New York City skyline, and the American flag.

One can generously describe “never forget”—when invoked by young people—as a concise expression of both horror and awe: horror at the death of thousands of innocent Americans and awe at the service rendered by the first responders who ran into the fire, many of whom did not come back out. But one can also view the phrase cynically, as a disingenuous attempt to signal virtue. For some, myself included, posting “never forget” seems more of an effort to tout one’s patriotism or draw attention to one’s somber reflection than it seems an effort to add anything meaningful to the annual conversation on how best to remember 9/11.

Regardless of how one views the phrase “never forget,” be one in the more generous camp or the more cynical one, it is clear that the words tell young people little about what we should remember about 9/11, how we should remember it, and what this remembrance demands of us. If we seek to remember 9/11, and I submit that we must, never forgetting is not enough.

But for those of us who lost no family member or close friend on 9/11, or who barely remember the day, do not remember it at all, or were born after it occurred, it is difficult to know how to commemorate 9/11 properly. It is also difficult to determine which parts of 9/11’s complicated legacy we should focus on.

There is much to remember about 9/11: the victims who died, the first responders who tried to save them, the workers who cleaned up the rubble in the years that followed. There are the Bush administration officials who worked the longest hours of their lives to protect our country from further attacks and the Americans who joined the military, intelligence agencies, law enforcement, and all levels of government to aid that effort. There are also the Americans whose civil liberties the government violated in the process of trying to protect our country, the Muslim communities that the government’s efforts targeted and stigmatized, and the men—innocent and not—who were tortured in dark corners of our world in an effort to gain information about future attacks. There are, too, the lawyers who worked to defend the civil liberties of their fellow Americans, as well as the attorneys, journalists, congressional staffers, and elected officials who helped expose the unconscionable horror of the torture program. There are the American soldiers and foreign civilians who have perished in what has become a global, and seemingly interminable, war on terror. There are the Americans who have urged for an end to our country’s wars and the return of our troops.

There are compelling reasons to remember each of these aspects of 9/11 and the response to 9/11. Instead of attempting to remember all this, though, young people should focus primarily on a thread undergirding many of the actions taken in response to 9/11, both on the day itself and in the years that followed: the persistent effort to stretch beyond the self in service of one’s community.

9/11 was a rare day during which the whole of the American public saw—in sharp and terrible relief—the final sacrifice made by our police officers and firefighters. This sacrifice is incomprehensible to anyone who has not made or faced the decision to lay down their life for another. The thought of running into a burning, collapsing building—of putting the lives of others ahead of one’s own and climbing as high as one could, in increasing heat, to save as many people as one could find—is unfathomable to us. People far more eloquent than I am have put pen to paper and described this transcendent strength. Few have done it as well as Bruce Springsteen, who captured with unmatched grace the great mystery of this sacrifice in his album “The Rising.” The men and women who laid down their lives on 9/11 stretched beyond themselves to give to neighbors and strangers. Victims like Welles Crowther, the Man in the Red Bandana, did so, too. While their sacrifice was the ultimate service, others also pushed themselves to give more than they thought they could in the service of their communities and their country.

Those who worked in the Bush administration, from those in the White House to those in the intelligence and law enforcement communities, did exactly this. While we can and should take issue with many of the policies the administration enacted in the wake of 9/11, the tenacity with which government officials approached the task of serving our country—and the days and weeks during which they worked on almost no sleep and demanded themselves to give more than they thought they could—is worth our solemn remembrance and emulation.  

Likewise should we remember how the men and women who enlisted in the armed forces after 9/11, or joined the intelligence community, law enforcement, or any level of government, committed themselves, for unknown days and months henceforth, to serve their country and communities. In this vein, too, we should remember the tireless work of the activists and lawyers who shouldered years of litigation to defend the civil liberties of Americans whose rights government programs had violated. Similarly should we remember the work of the attorneys, journalists, congressional staffers, and representatives who exposed the government’s torture program—at first in bits and pieces, and then in its (redacted) totality following an exhaustive six-year study that culminated in the Senate intelligence committee’s “Report on Torture.” So too should we remember the tireless efforts of Americans, including those who lost family members on 9/11, to urge for an end to our country’s wars.

Demanding more of ourselves—asking each day how much more we can give—in the service of other people is how young people should remember 9/11. The grave mistakes committed in the wake of 9/11 can inform the causes to which we should submit ourselves and commit our energies. The quickness to go to war following 9/11 suggests that we should dedicate ourselves to the cause of peace; the embrace of torture points to the need to support and defend human rights; the violation of Americans’ civil liberties on the basis of their ethnicity or beliefs underscores the need to protect the civil liberties of all people. But in all things, the determination to stretch beyond ourselves as we work in our communities must be how we remember.

This type of remembrance, one that makes demands of us and imposes on our time, has implications for how we as Holy Cross students should approach the nascent academic year. It means, perhaps, spending less time on ourselves or on the town than we might like, and more time committing to organizations on campus—be they SPUD, HC Fossil Free, or a journal like this one—aimed at serving our community, our neighbors. It means pursuing research projects aimed at maximizing our common good and pouring ourselves unreservedly into them. It means waking early to advance these causes and staying late to see them through.

This is good-faith remembrance. It extends beyond never forgetting. It extends beyond pondering once a year the seemingly impossible service rendered by so many on 9/11 and in the days and years that followed. Good-faith remembrance is giving more of ourselves than we thought we could—and expecting even more than that next time.  

(Overhead picture: Gary Hershorn/Getty Images)

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