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  • Christopher Strain

On Never Forgetting 9/11

A police officer sits away from grieving family members gathered at Ground Zero a year later on September 11, 2002.

I remember September 11, 2001. I remember it well. It was a Tuesday morning, still hurricane season in South Florida, where only a year earlier I had taken a job as an assistant professor of American studies. I was at home in West Palm Beach that morning, drinking coffee and prepping for class the next day (much of my time those first few years at FAU was spent in course prep, trying not to look foolish in front of my students). The Today Show on NBC was running in the background. Katie Couric and Matt Lauer were babbling about what might have been Michael Jordan’s last game with the Chicago Bulls the night before.

Breaking news: A plane had crashed into one of the Twin Towers, Couric reported, the largest buildings in New York City, the tallest in the world at one time. Jeez—not the World Trade Center, I thought. Had air traffic control at JFK Airport gone haywire? I watched, sipping my coffee. What an awful tragedy, I tsk-tsked to myself. Ten minutes later, I watched in real time as a jetliner plowed into the other Tower, erupting in a giant fireball. My stomach dropped, coffee spilled. The angles in my periphery where the ceiling and walls and floor met shifted a few degrees away from square, making it hard to stand straight. What... what the hell…? I sat down, wanting to focus on something patterned and predictable like the weave of the carpet or the pebbles in the popcorn ceiling, but could only stare, mouth agape, at the live coverage.

Matt Lauer was the first to connect the dots while his co-hosts—Ann Curry, Al Roker, and Couric—fumbled to explain. It was not an accident, he said, it was deliberate. And then someone said there had been a large explosion at The Pentagon. I felt nauseous. NBC Nightly News anchor Tom Brokaw showed up and somberly noted that the United States was under attack. And I couldn’t move from my living room couch. It was all so inconceivable. And then that godawful day became godawfuller as the first Tower collapsed into its own footprint. It fell straight down, disintegrating in a giant whooshing cloud of smoke-dust that covered Lower Manhattan. The most horrifying thing I’d ever seen had somehow, impossibly, become more horrific—and then the second Tower came down too and the World Trade Center was gone and New York was blanketed in white and I felt a stabbing of the soul and everything dissolved into a kind of existential numbness.

After hours and hours glued to the TV (which dutifully and sickeningly replayed the impacts and collapses in a mind-shattering, Zapruder-like loop), the shock gave way to a need to move, to go somewhere and do something to help, and I found myself driving to the South Florida Blood Bank, adjacent to St. Mary’s Hospital on 45th Street. I was surprised and pleased to find others who had the same instinct, coming together to make a positive difference in the face of evil. But even that impulse was inadequate in the new norm wrought that morning. About one hundred people gathered that afternoon, trying to donate blood for a tidal wave of survivors who never showed because they didn’t exist. Our gradual realization of that fact—the dawning awareness that there weren’t multitudes of injured and wounded needing blood in the carnage and chaos at Ground Zero—was one of the most terrible realities that day. We milled around like zombies.

The world community rallied around the United States in an unprecedented show of solidarity. In Beijing, tens of thousands of people visited the U.S. embassy, leaving flowers, cards, funeral wreaths and hand-written notes of condolence on the sidewalk out front. In Moscow, women who spoke no English and had never been to the U.S. were captured on film sobbing in front of a makeshift tribute on a sidewalk, and every single church and monastery in Romania held a memorial prayer. In Tehran, an entire stadium of people gathered for a soccer match observed a moment of silence, and in Turkey, flags flew at half-mast. In Germany more than 200,000 people marched under the Brandenburg Gate to show support. In London, Buckingham Palace played the “Star-Spangled Banner” during the ceremonial changing of the Guard. The Paris-based newspaper Le Monde, which was often critical of U.S. foreign policy, printed, “We are all Americans now.”

President George W. Bush, heretofore struggling in office, found his footing, pledging to track down the evil-doers. He announced his intention to wage preventive war against any force, including foreign nations, that he considered a threat to U.S. interests; no longer would the United States simply respond to threats to its national security, as it had done throughout the 20th century. The president’s approval ratings soared. Americans united in the wake of the attack. We pledged allegiance to the flag and sang “God Bless America” loudly and weepily and unabashedly. Never forget, we mouthed, never forget.

The phrase quickly evolved from a display of empathy into a weapon, a jingoistic cry in the newly born War on Terror, a campaign that came to consume the federal government and the military. Having won election promising to shrink the Washington bureaucracy and limit government spending, President Bush presided over the largest expansion of federal power since World War II. Within the first few weeks of 9/11, the president approved $55 billion in federal spending. According to the U.S. Treasury Department, the 42 presidents who held office between 1789 and 2000 borrowed a combined total of $1.01 trillion from foreign governments and financial institutions; but, between 2001 and 2005 alone, the Bush White House borrowed $1.05 trillion, more than all previous presidents combined. Having inherited the largest federal surplus in U.S. history from President Clinton in 2001, Bush turned it into the largest deficit ever: in Bush’s first three years in office, his administration turned a $236 billion federal budget surplus into a $400 billion annual deficit. Overall government spending increased by 16%, and while post-9/11 defense needs accounted for much of this increase, domestic spending also grew by 11%.

A cynic might’ve noted that if civilians didn’t forget the horrors of 9/11, then the Bush administration could ramp up military spending to record heights. If civilians didn’t forget the horrors of 9/11, then Congress could pass laws that ran roughshod over civil liberties--laws such as the Patriot Act that unconstitutionally jeopardized privacy via wiretaps and electronic surveillance (a price most of us seemed willing to pay to avoid further assaults). But that cynic would’ve misunderstood the mentality of “Never forget.” It wasn’t orchestrated, top-down propaganda; the government didn’t actively need to remind anyone about 9/11. The memory was raw, fresh, impossible to ignore; the phrase and the sentiment it captured were genuine and heartfelt; and Americans were, as the band U2 intoned, stuck in the moment. And like that moment, the words “Never forget” stuck too. At some point it became a mindless mantra, like “Have a nice day.” Never forget, we mouthed, never forget. But… why? Why did and why do we still insist on remembering September 11?

If you had experienced a personal trauma in your life—a car crash or illness or burglary, an injury or accident or violation, something terrible and wounding, physically or psychically or spiritually—then you would do everything in your control to forget it. You would see psychiatrists and psychologists to erase the trauma, or at least to manage it. Therapists often practice expanding a “window of tolerance” for patients dealing with traumatic stress. Initially, one’s window is small, easily triggered to flashbacks, intrusive thoughts, high anxiety, emotional shut down/numbing, panic/anxiety attacks, dissociation, and general feelings of being overwhelmed. The idea is to widen the window: to develop coping mechanisms to lessen the encumbrance of recollection.

What you would not do, if you had a modicum of self-preservation, would be to dwell in that terrible moment, to retreat into the memory and wallow in the pain. And if you did, or even tried, your friends and family would drag you out of it and insist that you live in the here and now without retrospection. After many expensive therapy sessions, you would claw your way toward disremembering. In time you would recover. And you would be better for it.

Why, then, do we look back? Why do we “never forget”? What do we gain in remembrance of this national tragedy? These are questions worth asking now, twenty years after the fact, amid an ugly, violent, and botched extraction from Afghanistan. In the wake of deadly bombings on August 26 at the Kabul Airport, where 13 U.S. military personnel were killed along with 90 Afghans fleeing the Taliban, we must ask.

Do we gain vigilance, a prophylaxis against other attacks? Perhaps. No other terror attacks have occurred on U.S. soil. Our defensive measures have succeeded, thwarting would-be attackers who would see us burn again. Or perhaps we gain the memory of national cohesion. Like Pearl Harbor, the 9/11 attacks--acts intended to divide and demoralize Americans--actually had the opposite effect, bringing us together as one to oppose our enemies. Or perhaps keeping that day alive is a posthumous tribute to those who died that day. Perhaps in our remembrance they continue to live in honor and respect.

Regardless, whatever is gained in remembrance comes at a cost, an almost unbearable memory burden not reflected in the platitude “Never forget.” The horror of that day is not something to carry lightly, a totem or talisman tucked in one’s pocket. Like Sauron’s Ring forged in the depths of Mordor, it is weighty, a heavy load with which to travel.

Life is a series of joys and traumas, interrupted by long periods of normality and mundane blahs. The joys are treasures to hold and keep, the traumas crosses to bear. If we choose to see them, small joys and daily wonders can help to offset the barrage of lesser and greater shocks of existence: not only the skinned knees and minor indignities but also the illnesses, accidents, deaths, disappointments, and betrayals. The joys are preferable but the traumas unavoidable, and one hopes in the end for a balanced share of both, at least, if not a tipping toward happiness.

9/11 was a trauma in my life, as it was for all of us: a wound scabbed by time, a placeholder for more personal and intimately felt traumas that have yet to come. I did not experience it directly, wasn’t there to witness it in person, didn’t lose a loved one. While a national tragedy and a grand horror for those directly impacted, it’s still no more than a mini-cross for me. Even so, if it were any bigger, I probably couldn’t carry it. I can only imagine how terrible it was for those who lived it up close.

As an historian, I believe in the value of looking back, of studying the past, of remembering. Paraphrasing philosopher George Santayana (who famously said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”), we often tell ourselves that we study history to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past. While catchy and memorable, Santayana’s quip is a rather silly reason for studying history. History does not repeat itself—not in the exact same ways, never in the same situations. And even if it did, those who do learn from the past are just as doomed as those who don’t. It may be that humans, even under the most enlightened circumstances, are fated to irrationality and folly, fumbling down the same well-trodden and disastrous paths as their forebears.

There are better reasons for studying history--which is, after all, a story about the human past. Through the study of history, we make other people's experiences our own. In this way we touch other times and places and add the knowledge and wisdom gained by others to our own personal experience. Studying history is not an exercise in memorization; it is, rather, a process of assembling information from the past and giving meaning to it, a way of thinking about the present that attempts to make sense of the complexity of contemporary events by examining what lies beneath them. Understanding the past is its own reward, but studying history pays off in other ways as well. It trains the mind, enlarges compassion, and provides a much-needed perspective on some of the world's pressing problems. It’s an attempt to ask and answer The Big Questions. History fosters critical thinking, sharpens reading and writing skills, and prepares one for a wide variety of occupations.

That said, it’s a special kind of masochism that dwells in the 9/11 moment, and a peculiar choice to remain living in the damaged aftermath. Yes, there was feel-good, flag-waving patriotism and a nationalistic unity born of adversity. And it was, for a short while, authentic and warming. But that unity was quickly corrupted by a range of negative emotions including fear, anxiety, and hate.

I recently saw a social media post that nostalgized September 12, 2001, wistfully recalling the sense of togetherness and resilience and vulnerable honesty in the days immediately following that fateful day. I understand the sentiment and I miss it, too. What united us mattered more than what divided us. But I think I miss September 10th more, wishing it had never happened, and it’s sad that we as a people can’t find a way to come together without tragedy, war, or trauma. If I long for September 12th, then I long for the unity of that moment without the xenophobic mistrust, the murderous rage, and the all-consuming need for revenge. The War on Terror was at root level a War to Get Even, and it never really went away, even though terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein—an Iraqi bad man and ruthless dictator guilty of many crimes, none related to 9/11—were both vanquished long ago.

The Oglala Lakota visionary and priest Black Elk was present as a young boy in 1876 at the Battle of the Little Bighorn. At the age of ten, he was instructed by a fellow Lakota Sioux to scalp one of Custer’s dying soldiers, who gamely resisted until shot in the forehead. In his twenties he was present at the massacre of Chief Bigfoot’s band of Minneconjou Sioux in 1890 at Wounded Knee Creek. The images stuck with him: terrible bullet wounds; machine-gunned bodies of men and women and children lying in heaps; a baby trying to nurse at the breast of its dead mother. He later observed that certain things among the shadows of a person’s life do not need to be remembered. They remember themselves, he noted.

September 11, 2001 was a terrible day, easily one of the worst days of my life that didn’t involve a direct trauma to me or someone in my family. I would love to forget it. I don’t think I’ll be able to, either as an historian or as an individual. And while I feel obligated to remember as the former, I feel little obligation as the latter, wallowing in the horror of that day. 9/11 will certainly remember itself.

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