The first time I saw New York’s Twin Towers in a textbook, my heart stopped.
My best friend’s kids were showing me their history textbooks for the upcoming school year, and when I flipped through to the very end, there was a brief section on 9-11 that included a photograph of the Twin Towers. (The photograph wasn’t from 9-11; these were elementary school kids. They didn’t show them burning or falling.)
And I looked at the kids and realized that for them, 9-11 was history. They weren’t born 21 years ago on that violent and awful day.
They could read about it in a book, but they could never understand.
They weren’t there.
I was a junior at Penn State and watched the whole thing unfold on a movie screen in the student center, surrounded by students as dazed and confused as I was.
In the days and weeks and months that followed that moment, the world—and life itself—felt uncertain and unsettled.
“In a time of particular uncertainty…” they would say on the news.
They said the same thing during the early days of the pandemic.
But the idea of “a time of particular uncertainty” is a myth we tell ourselves, because the most cursory reading of history shows that every moment is uncertain. And every untimely death to one close to us reminds us that no one is promised tomorrow.
Or even today.
Events like 9-11 or the pandemic throw that stark reminder right in your face and don’t allow you to look away.
I started this post by writing that Nina’s kids couldn’t understand because they read about 9-11 in a book.
But the truth is, though I lived through it live, I watched 9-11 on a television screen. I called everyone close to me and they picked up the phone.
I could never understand.
I wasn’t there.
And what of the ones who were there, in the belly of the beast?
Who died in terror in the towers that day? Or the ones who survived? Or the ones in New York who watched the smoke and flames as the once tallest buildings in the world crumbled in a day.
Or the fire fighters and the police who ran toward disaster while everyone else ran away?
They were there.
Do they understand?
I don’t see how they could.
Never Forget, we say.
To me, that’s not a cry for revenge or a warning to hide under your bed from the terror of the world.
It’s a reminder that 9-11 is part of our collective American history now—as much as Betsy Ross sewing the first American flag, or the Gettysburg Address, or the assassination of JFK.
A reminder that the world is full of heroes and villains, and that every generation must fight to preserve the ideals of peace and justice against the forces of evil that live in the human heart.
So we put 9-11 in our textbooks, we mark where it happened as sacred ground, we document it in museums and grapple with it in art.
We didn’t have to be there. We don’t have to understand.
We just have to remember.
I find it interesting to see kids books and how they treat the past. Seeing people like David Bowie airbrushed and retold in a child friendly manner. But 9/11 was the worst single event of our lifetimes, and specifically because it was man-made. That’s why we should always remember the senseless waste of human life; hatred is real, aggression is real, and it’s part of our would.
Having said all that, 9/11 was the beginning of an era of hate, and we’re still living through it. Terrorism is a genuine danger, national or international, and we have not resolved the issues involved; if anything, we’ve muddied the water continually. America seems to be on the edge of a different kind of threat right now, and it may well be the same people behind the threat. We should be silent today in remembrance, but also resolute that those who seek to destroy a free and democratic country should not get away with it. This is about more than patriotism, it’s humanity that’s in question.
I agree with everything you’ve said. 9/11 was the worst precisely because it was man-man and not a natural disasters. And it spawned so much hate and killing. We just cannot allow the events of that day and it’s long aftermath to tear us apart. The fight for justice, freedom, and truth is never ending and must continue.
It’s the correct answer. Right now, everything has been absurdly and deliberately politicized, and people seem to find their identity in blaming others. That’s exactly what those behind 9/11 wanted, and they’re getting their wish now. If we can’t establish and nurture our duty to each other, we might as well give up on freedom, justice and the whole shebang.