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.