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Remembering September 11, Twenty Years Later

What does it mean to say that we’ll never forget?

“None of us will ever forget this day,” George W. Bush pledged on the evening of September 11, 2001, during his first address to the nation after the terrorist attacks that destroyed the World Trade Center. This was three days before the famous bullhorn speech (“I can hear you! The rest of the world hears you! And the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon”), which Bush delivered on September 14, to rescue workers at Ground Zero; it was more than a week before the address to a joint session of Congress, delivered on September 20, in which Bush demanded that the Taliban turn over the leaders of Al Qaeda, believed to be hiding in Afghanistan; it was more than four months before the State of the Union speech of January 29, 2002, in which Bush first used the phrase “Axis of Evil” to describe Iran, Iraq, and North Korea. It was, in other words, the very beginning of a national discourse, the first official model of how America might talk about one of the most traumatic days in its history, offered while the air in Lower Manhattan was still full of smoke. And already, one of the themes of the discourse was memory. We were talking about how to remember September 11 before September 12 had dawned. We were talking about how to remember September 11 before we had finished experiencing it.

In the end it would be months before the air fully cleared at Ground Zero. By then, of course, the U.S. had tallied the casualties of the attacks (2,977 dead, not including the 19 hijackers; more than 25,000 injured; a sizable chunk of New York City devastated; planes crashed into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and a field in Stonycreek Township, Pennsylvania). By then, the U.S. and its coalition of allies were fighting a war in Afghanistan, and the language of public memory around the September 11 attacks was already assuming a distinct shape. This language—the means by which the memorialization of September 11 is invoked by political leaders, by cultural and governmental institutions, by speakers who aim to represent a wide-ranging we rather than a personal I—has remained more or less unchanged between 2001 and now, in September 2021, as we approach the 20th anniversary of the attacks. The most distinctive feature of this public language is that it frames remembrance not as a positive, healing, or generative act, but as a kind of refusal: the refusal to forget. For two decades, beginning with Bush’s address and continuing through the disastrous recent end of the Afghan war, we have rarely been told that we will remember September 11. We have been told, instead, again and again, that we will never forget it.

“When we say we will never forget, we mean what we say,” Barack Obama declared in a speech to New York City firefighters the week after ordering the raid that killed Osama bin Laden. “We will never forget,” Donald Trump tweeted over a photo of himself and Melania Trump on the 18th anniversary of the attacks, five months before he signed a peace deal with the Taliban. The fundraising vehicle of the 9/11 Memorial & Museum is called the “Never Forget Fund.” (Obama, speaking in support of the museum, said it ensured that future generations would “never forget” September 11.) The language of never forgetting is repeated by Fox News hosts and MSNBC headlines. On Twitter, commemorations of the attacks and the victims cluster under the hashtag #NeverForget.

What does it mean, though, to say that we’ll never forget? When the phrase is spoken in a personal context, rather than as part of a national rhetoric, it tends to act as an intensifier to the more straightforward expression “I’ll remember.” You use it to emphasize whatever meaning you associate with the memory. It can be vengeful (“I’ll never forget this betrayal” versus the less menacing “I’ll remember this betrayal”), nostalgic (“I’ll never forget my first kiss”), or mournful (“I’ll never forget my grandmother’s face”). Its power comes from its defiance. To forget, after all, is a normal part of being human. We all forget, all the time; we forget trivial things and important things, things that happened years ago and things that happened yesterday. We forget our ATM PINs and the colors of our loved ones’ eyes. Memories start out vivid and then fade, a little at a time. But when we say “I’ll never forget,” we say we can overcome the part of ourselves that lets that slow diminishment happen. We say, despite our own lifelong experience, that in this case, we will keep this moment, this feeling, just as it is, forever.

I think more or less the same implication is involved when it’s a national discourse, rather than a personal resolve, that declares forgetting off-limits. The natural drift of culture, after all, is toward forgetfulness. People forget, people are born and die, and before too many years pass, the culture is made up entirely of those who never experienced the thing they’re supposed to remember. It takes an extraordinary effort—in the form of stories, artworks, holidays, rituals, works of scholarship, and so on—to keep alive even an outline, even of the events that seem most desperately urgent at the moment when they occur. I don’t mean to preserve them in history books, but in the conscious emotional lives of a population. Public memorialization—the wave of monument-building, speech-making, and museum-dedicating that tends to take place in the generation or two after the event, and that Americans have been engaged in for the past 20 years with September 11—is a way of opposing the deep intensity of immediate feeling against the inevitability of forgetting. We’ll never forget, in this sense, might mean This means so much to us that we’ll keep it alive for the future as best we can. Here are bread crumbs, we tell the future, for when you lose your way.

The question, always, is whether the future will follow. The future will have its own reality, the nature of which we can barely guess at, and it will seem very urgent to the people who are living through it. And so it’s no real surprise that for several years now, the anniversary of September 11 has inspired a small wave of anxiety about whether we’re forgetting already. The 10th anniversary, in 2011, got wall-to-wall coverage; look through the media archives after that, though, and you start to see magazines noting the decline in the number of New York papers willing to treat the return of the date to the calendar as front-page news, editorial hand-wringing about how the attacks are understood by young people, TV spots about whether we’re losing sight of the lessons of 9/11, and so forth. This year, with another 10-year anniversary in view, that anxiety coexists uneasily with the familiar declarations of eternal memory. “What Does It Mean to ‘Never Forget’?”, The New York Times asks, and the BBC paraphrases the wife of a victim of the attacks: “Pain is like a sharp knife, which dulls over time.”

And memory, in any case, can cut both ways. I mean no disrespect to the victims of September 11 or their families when I state the obvious: In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks, the memory of September 11 was exploited by powerful officials to drive us into ruinous wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, wars that wasted $2 trillion while killing and traumatizing hundreds of thousands of soldiers and civilians. It’s tough to talk about memory, too, without noting that the American conflict in Afghanistan, the most immediate consequence of September 11, the most visible manifestation of a national trauma, was widely known as America’s “forgotten war” even as it was happening.

Here’s what I think: The memory of September 11, measured by the immediacy with which most people experience it, will continue to fade, year by year and little by little. It won’t be forgotten, but it will come to resemble the Kennedy assassination and then it will come to resemble the Battle of Gettysburg and then it will come to resemble the breach of the Peace of Nicias in the Peloponnesian War. The particular sort of remembering that’s characterized anniversaries of the attacks up to this point—the collective re-living of that morning by people who were alive to experience it, the ritual revisiting of horrifying and familiar images, the shared recollection of the shock and fear and whatever else we went through on the day—isn’t about to end. But time keeps passing, and in the arc of history, it won’t go on that long.

I think—though I don’t know this for certain—that the ways in which we forget an event may shape us more than the ways in which we remember it. As we’ve seen in our own lifetimes, as everyone who’s ever lived has probably seen in their lifetimes, a remembered tragedy can have enormous consequences. But the one that’s mostly forgotten, as September 11 eventually will be—that’s the one that risks leaving behind unexamined prejudices, phobias, habits of reaction, wellsprings of anger, insecurities, and resentments, all of which can spiral out in unpredictable ways over a very long span of time. Think about the deep antipathies between, say, European cities, the ones that turn out, if you trace them back to their roots, to spring from some rivalry between merchants in the 17th century; or think of the hatreds that have sprung from imperial powers arbitrarily redrawing borders on a map. Hardly anyone remembers the merchants, and hardly anyone remembers where the borders came from, but distrust and violence easily become self-perpetuating—the more easily when they don’t seem to spring from any obvious cause.

In other words: We are angry and hurt because terrorists attacked the World Trade Center is a statement with a clear cause and effect; the anger and hurt can be addressed, can be processed, can perhaps be healed. Jump ahead a generation or two, however, and you might end up with a book knowledge that planes crashed into a building, a feeling of anger and mistrust toward the outside world, but no conscious connection between the two. Your mistrust becomes a structural feature of your reality. You can’t see outside it, because you don’t clearly know where it came from. That may sound kind of abstract, but think how much of our worldviews we inherit from our parents or people who came before us. And think how hard an inherited worldview is to change.

Which sounds like an argument for saying never forget, but there’s the whole trick of the historical labyrinth: We don’t have a choice not to forget. We will forget, not because we’re bad people, not because we don’t honor the dead, but because we’re human and live in time. The best choice we have is to remember as well as we can for as long as we can, so that when we do forget, we leave wisdom, or at least understanding, behind.

I suspect that one of the challenges currently facing the collective American psyche, if there is such a thing, is that the memory of September 11 was misused from the beginning. It was deployed by unprincipled people to lead us into war, and to make many Americans turn against and away from the outside world. As the tragic consequences of this stratagem became more and more evident, and as our ability to mourn September 11 remained compromised by the ends to which our mourning was being put, I think the misuse of the memory became, in effect, a second trauma after the trauma of the attacks. I don’t think we’ve gotten over either of those traumas, even as time continues to pass and their immediacy continues to wane. I can’t guess what it will mean for American culture over the long term if the fading of September 11 leaves behind these invisible wellsprings of pain, mistrust, and belligerence—how that forgetfulness might shape us. In any case, the rhetoric from above seems unlikely to help the situation. Earlier this month, President Biden issued an executive order directing federal agencies to review documents related to the attacks for possible declassification. The third paragraph of his statement announcing the order opened with the phrase, “We must never forget.”