17 years ago today, the United States was attacked through the skies as several terrorist-highjacked airplanes struck buildings in New York City and Washington D.C. and attempted to do so in Pennsylvania. 2,977 victims in all perished in the day’s attacks.
Those are the basics of a moment in our history that echoes more loudly than a tidy list of bullet points, and resonates with still-vivid and visceral force. Everyone has their 9/11 story. Some were near Ground Zero in Manhattan. Others recount hearing about it through the radio at their cubicle. I for one was a senior in high school in Western New York, and for a brief period of time, my classmates and I believed our city of Rochester could be the next viable location for an attack due to our proximity to the Ginna Nuclear Power Plant.
The visuals remain haunting too. First responders covered in soot at the base of what hours before were the two most iconic towers in the world’s most iconic skyline. Office employees, with no other route for escape, jumping from buildings and plummeting to their death. But then, the raising of an American flag on top of a pile of rubble, a modern day evocation of Iwo Jima; the symbol of a growing, unified belief that we were one people in the face of a common enemy, a nation of citizens in support of suddenly simple principles; a love for our neighbor. An appreciation for freedoms long taken for granted, and suddenly seen as fleeting.
And at the front of our fight was our president, George W. Bush, a man supported on either side of the aisle because he had experienced what we had; he was our guy. And in that moment, a president had never seemed more accessible, never more like us in our vulnerability, but also in our resolve.
Americans were at once a single people, unified by a common love of country birthed from the common hate of an enemy.
In those days, that hate felt righteous and appropriate. We’d been brought to our knees and our hate, strong as it was, could be celebrated in the name of indignation, of righting our wrongs.
It’s 2018 now. Unfortunately, our hate hasn’t aged well. These days, 9/11 is a momentary reprieve from a growing gulf in values and principled discourse among citizens who 17 years ago knew they shared more than they didn’t. The memories of 9/11 haven’t faded but the lessons have. The compassion is gone. Being heard matters more than being right. Easily-digested headline bait dominates our discourse instead of the broader principles that are perpetually at stake somewhere off on the shore.
We’re buried in the comments section of another Facebook thread, lamenting the ugly state of a public discourse we’ve done nothing to improve. We’re behind a keyboard instead of the company of our closest friends, posting about the poor treatment of troops or gay people or minorities who we’ll fight for so long as we don’t have to logoff to do it.
The rallying cry-turned-hashtag of #NeverForget has become a hollow retail-friendly stamp that adorns the photoshopped and color-treated shots of a New York City skyline that’s absent 2,977 souls we only really think about if we can turn it into a status update in exchange for likes. As a bandaid for our true lack of heart, a temporary cover to convince ourselves a baker’s dozen of thumbs-up emojis should suffice as validation for our patriotism.
We say #NeverForget. But it’s been years since we truly remembered.