Sixteen years ago, I walked through the halls of Paschal High School on my way to second period. As I shouldered through the gossiping teens, I overheard a few phrases that didn't connect: Plane; Crash; Tower. Finally, steps from the door to Mrs. Sikes "US History," a kid named Alex jokingly announced that "some dumb ass" had crashed into the Empire State Building.
A few minutes later, I found myself in a surprisingly quiet classroom. Students were whispering, trying to piece together the news. Our cell phones were the size of bricks and played Snake, and that was the extent of their power. Then Mrs. Sikes entered, her eyes red and puffy. She took a moment to collect her thoughts and then addressed us.
"Something is happening right now. This is a moment in history, and you need to see it." Her room didn't have a TV, so we went next door and sat next to other students around a glowing 27 inch Magnivox. That's how I saw the towers fall in New York.
There's not much I can say about that moment that hasn't already been said. It was an "awakening," or the moment America "came together," or any other simple rhetoric. For me, the moment can be summed up with what happened that afternoon. I received a call from my doctor's office admonishing me for missing an appointment.
Seriously? We'd just been attacked, the country was on a war footing, and I was getting taken to task for forgetting my annual check up?
Well, it's taken me 16 years, but I realize now why it was so important to make that appointment.
What We Forgot
The most-common slogan I've seen for 9/11 is "Never Forget." It's a label applied to most tragedies in human history, and it is the most often ignored. Few people carry around the memory of that day like pictures of their kids, whipping it out to show strangers in line at Starbucks.
"Where were you? I was here. Yeah, never forget."
No. We do exactly what I'm doing now. We bring it up on the anniversary, and tomorrow it's back to our regularly scheduled programming.
I don't think anyone is really in danger of forgetting that 9/11 occurred, or that it was a pivotal moment in American history. I do, however, think we are in danger of forgetting an even more important date in our history:
September 10, 2001.
Our nation has mutated in the past 16 years, and often not for the better. The experience of flying has become an exercise in frustration and dehumanization. We can have an airline jack up prices 500% for people trying to escape a hurricane, and we collectively shrug our shoulders and say, "Yeah, and they don't serve meals anymore."
We've sacrificed so much in the name of increased security, even though countless studies say those changes have been wholly ineffective (as it turns out, preparing for the last attack only helps if you also have a time machine).
We've taken a national tragedy and allowed opportunists to turn us against one another, building tribes around issues and fighting rabidly to defend our ideals. We're so divided that snake oil salesmen can take over our airwaves and feed us conspiracy theories, and we lap it up.
We've become so afraid of the "other" that we've forgotten what America was supposed to be. As a child, the phrase I heard most often was "melting pot." We are a nation of immigrants and dreamers, coming together to be the best humanity has to offer. We can rise above the petty differences and become a beacon for the rest of the world. Now, we are facing some of the worst anger and resentment toward immigrants in our history. People of color are facing worse and worse treatment, some institutionalized, and we as a nation shrug our shoulders again.
We forgot that America is a home for the impossible. This nation wasn't meant to survive past the first President, but we did. Power has peacefully transitioned 45 times since the bloody war that won this country. We pioneered, explored, and welcomed the brightest minds from around the world to add to our culture of knowledge and advancement. When humanity faced its darkest moments, America didn't shy away. We joined together with old "enemies" and forged alliances that persist to this day.
We forgot that, after defeating evil in the world, we stayed to help rebuild and regrow.
We forgot that hatred and isolation and "America First" were part of our turbulent past, and now we have brought them to our present.
What We Can Remember
On 9/11, I forgot a doctor's appointment, but it was more than that. I forgot my responsibilities. I forgot that the rest of the world existed. I forgot all the lessons I had been taught up to that point. Now, more than ever, I realize how important it is to remember.
Today, take a moment to remember.
Remember the lives lost, the families broken, and the pain that washed around the world. Remember the incredible bravery of the first responders who ran toward the screaming and the flames. Remember the heroes who searched through toxic rubble day and night for weeks. Remember the humans, the animals, and the machines that saved lives.
Remember that nations around the globe donated money and people, sending search and rescue teams to aid in the recovery. Remember that, despite all the disagreements we may have, we are all together on this blue marble.
Remember that we were attacked not for being "free," or for being "white." We were attacked for being different. A hateful ideology decided that our concepts of multiculturalism and unity and religious freedom were too much to bear.
Remember that Al-Queda and ISIS are not Islam, in the same way that the Westboro Baptist Church is not Christianity, in the same way that Nazism isn't Conservatism, in the same way that Communism is not Liberalism. Remember that an ideology based around hatred always fails, as history has shown time and again.
Remember that being angry is not the same as being vigilant. Remember that hating your enemy is not the same as loving your neighbor. Remember that you aren't the only person, or race, or religion, or gender to live in this country, and what works best for you might not work best for everyone.
Remember that a shared hatred is not the same as shared values.
Remember that America is just one country, and still dangerously young. Democracy is a precious thing, and is easily manipulated. It must be guarded, treasured, and celebrated.
And finally, remember that what divides us is less than what unites us, so long as we want to be together. The loudest voices are often the only ones heard, so refuse to be shouted down. Refuse to fall apart in the face of adversity. Refuse to stand apart from your neighbors when we should be standing shoulder-to-shoulder.
Refuse to be Silent.