I first want to apologize to those expecting my follow-up articles on the history and significance of the national political conventions. I am now teaching a class at Rutgers University, as well as in charge of the Rutgers-New Brunswick for Obama-Biden effort; as such, I've frankly been swamped. I hope to finish and post the rest of the series in the next few weeks.
Today, I want to take an altogether different tack, as we mark the 11th anniversary of the September 11th terrorist attacks. As an 8th grader in the New Jersey suburbs of New York City, the images I saw - the Towers, the faces, the tears - are seared into my memory. For 13-year old students like me, it was the first time we would hear about Al-Qaeda, or look for Afghanistan on a classroom globe.
Today, powerful and ordinary Americans across our country - and many more across the world - are vowing to "never forget" that day. It is, I fervently pray, a vow we will keep as long as we live. What is it, however, that we seek to never forget? In my mind, it is not just who, but what must be remembered if 9/11/2001 is to be more than a date in a history textbook 100 years from now.
Who we lost
We have a number - 2,977. 2,624 Americans and 353 citizens from other countries. It's a meaningless - and, frankly, insulting - way to note who lost their lives at the World Trade Center, at the Pentagon and in the skies over Pennsylvania. Each victim had a life, a family, a future, that was snuffed out like a candle flame struck by a sudden blast of wind. Not only lives were lost, then - so too were hopes, dreams, the safety and happiness of those they loved and cared for.
Many never had a chance to see the sun rise the next day; many others chose to give "the last full measure of devotion" in the effort to save others. The term "hero" is grossly overused in this day and age; but those who entered the Towers to help those inside to exit, those who pulled the wounded out of rubble at the Pentagon, those on Flight 93 who chose to die on their own terms - they are heroes.
The names that are being called at Ground Zero as I write this are, in truth, more meaningful than themselves. For those they knew and loved -husbands and wives, parents and children, friends and co-workers - their loss cuts far deeper. Their lives changed dramatically on that day; physical wounds can fully heal, but not the human heart.
When we pledge "Never Forget", we vow to remember not only those who perished, but those whose lives were irrevocably altered in the process.
What we lost
We know who we lost on September 11th, 2001. Yet I would argue that to "never forget" means remembering what we lost as well. Three things come to mind:
Innocence - children like me who'd never heard of, let along thought about, people like Osama bin Laden, or of the cities and mountains of Afghanistan. Hell, how many 8th graders, including me even knew where Afghanistan was on a map? How many of us knew what Al-Qaeda was, or how easy it was for 19 men to board a plane and hijack it? The media, some will recall, was agog about Gary Condit and shark attacks in the days before. It was a time when the vast majority of Americans thought war meant a few waves of bombing to remove some tinpot dictator in obscure parts of the globe.
I don't know a single person who wouldn't want to live in a world where September 11th, 2001 saw us at home, watching the same TV shows we had the week before, knowing that Pearl Harbor was the last time an enemy took life from the skies.
Safety - by and large, we've been taught to be afraid. "If you see something, say something"; security with guns in our cities and transportation hubs; body scans and removing our shoes at the airport; and many other realities that would have been inconceivable to most on September 10th, 2001. Safety, particularly for those who outside of poverty, was an illusion that September 11th rudely dispensed with. How many of us see an out-of-place stranger on the street corner, or hear a conversation in a language we don't understand and wonder, even if for a moment, if we ought to tell others? Would we really have been as likely do that 11 years and 1 day ago?
I don't know a single person who wouldn't want to live in a world where boarding a plane only affected people with sensitive eardrums.
Liberty - the Patriot Act was passed just days after the attacks. Only Senator Russ Feingold voted against it; indeed, I doubt anyone outside those already concerned with civil liberties opposed the Act when it was proposed.
Since then, we've seen Americans locked in prisons without trial; the physical and psychological torture of human beings without major repercussions; lifelong Americans persecuted for their religious beliefs, sometimes with violent results; war heroes like Max Cleland and John Kerry demonized as terrorist sympathizers for daring to dissent; and, worst of all, our nation manipulated by our leaders into an act of preemptive aggression against a nation which had nothing to do with the deaths of nearly 3,000 victims.
"Us versus them" has always been politically potent. Since 9/11/2001, it has become a mantra to tear our people apart, to say nothing of other peoples around the world. We live today in a climate where, for far too many Americans, "moderate" is a 4-letter word and compromise equals unconditional surrender. It's a climate that permits people to discredit the President of the United States not because of what he has proposed, but by who they believe he really is.
I don't know a single person who wouldn't want to live in a world where Abu Gharib is just a place, people can protest without physical and political reprisal, and demagogues that put Joe McCarthy to shame never take a seat in Congress. Nor, for that matter, would we prefer a world where the loss of hundreds of thousands of lives was exceeded by the millions of Americans who lost their homes or savings, and the trillions in debt we racked up to pay for an immoral war and an equally immoral economic policy.
We tried to disregard the warning Benjamin Franklin gave us over 200 years ago. In the vain search for a little security, we sacrificed so much of what makes democracy possible - our freedom.
When we vow to "Never Forget", 11 years after a clear, sunny morning in New York, Washington D.C. and rural Pennsylvania became shrouded in darkness forever, let us also vow to remember the following:
That who we lost goes beyond the dead, to all they knew and loved.
That what we lost goes beyond destroyed and damaged buildings, to the destruction of nations and peoples, and the damage to our discourse, our Constitution, our economy.
Above all, that to "Never Forget" means to vow, with equal strength and honesty, to repair the damage and renew our commitment to the principle that defines our nation: "To form a more perfect union".