Each year, I try to write a memorial post on the anniversary, to remind myself, and as a record of where I am compared to where I was that day. As I read back over them, what I see nearly ever year is that I wanted to cling to the sadness of the day, the very real sense of grief and loss that I think colors the day for those of us who were in New York City then in a slightly different way than it did for people who were more distant.
If you could smell the smoke, I think, it was a different experience.
And as a result, I never had as much of the anger that so many others, who were more distant, felt as a reaction to the attacks. “Let’s grieve first”, I thought. “There will be plenty of time for being angry.”
In 2002, I wrote On Being an American:
Get annoyed, get angry, be incensed as you are with your sister who always votes the opposite of you, as annoyed as you get with your father who never quite got where you were coming from politically. And come back, shaking your head but still smiling, and enjoy the chance to appreciate those Americans that your reflexes tell you to resent. Be thankful for the chance to have neighbors or fellow citizens who raise your ire or offend your sensibilities. Be thankful that we can sit in a quiet small town and roll our eyes at the inanities of a visitor from a big city.
In 2003, Two Years:
There’s other people, who are consumed by their anger, unable to move forward with their lives, and determined to pick the scab and make sure it never heals. They find honor in making sure the pain never subsides, and in trying to make others hurt like they do. We have some of those, and I understand why they have to hold on to their anger. I just hope they see that it’s not the best thing for them, in the long term. I spent a lot of time, too much time, resenting people who were visiting our city, and especially the site of the attacks, these past two years. I’ve been so protective, I didn’t want them to come and get their picture taken like it was Cinderella’s Castle or something. I’m trying really hard not to be so angry about that these days. I found that being angry kept me from doing the productive and important things that really mattered, and kept me from living a life that I know I’m lucky to have.
In 2004, Thinking of You:
I don’t know if it’s distance, or just the passing of time, but I notice how muted the sorrow is. There’s a passivity, a lack of passion to the observances. I knew it would come, in the same way that a friend told me quite presciently that day back in 2001 that “this is all going to be political debates someday” and, well, someday’s already here.
In 2005, Four Years:
I was so defensive because I saw people who hated New York City, or at least didn’t care very much about it, trying to act as if they were extremely invested in recovering from the attacks, or opining about the causes or effects of the attacks. And to me, my memory of the attacks and, especially, the days afterward had nothing to do with the geopolitics of the situation. They were about a real human tragedy, and about the people who were there and affected, and about everything but placing blame and pointing fingers. It felt thoughtless for everyone to offer their response in a framework that didn’t honor the people who were actually going through the event.
In 2006, I wrote After Five Years, Failure, which marked the beginning of me feeling resigned to the far more cynical remembrance this day was starting to have:
[A]fter all the grief of the day, one of the strongest feelings I came away with on the day of the attacks was a feeling of some kind of hope. Being in New York that day really showed me the best that people can be. As much as it’s become cliché now, there’s simply no other way to describe a display that profound. It was truly a case of people showing their very best nature.
We seem to have let the hope of that day go, though.
Then finally, last year, resignation with Six Is Letting Go:
On the afternoon of September 11th, 2001, and especially on September 12th, I wasn’t only sad. I was also hopeful. I wanted to believe that we wouldn’t just Never Forget that we would also Always Remember. People were already insisting that we’d put aside our differences and come together, and maybe the part that I’m most bittersweet and wistful about was that I really believed it. I’d turned 26 years old just a few days before the attacks, and I realize in retrospect that maybe that moment, as I eased from my mid-twenties to my late twenties, was the last time I’d be unabashedly optimistic about something, even amidst all the sorrow.
Over and over, I’ve resisted getting angry, but this year when I first saw the Towers of Light, I finally understood that I am finally, genuinely mad. Not just at those murderous barbarians who attacked us, but at the sheer number of people who’ve actually stopped caring about the victims or the attacks at all, except so far as chanting “9/11” is useful to them. People who would mock the idealism and optimism that made so many of us hopeful in the days after the attacks, treating our best instincts with condescension.
Because to me, as naive as it may seem seven years later, the attacks were about hope. The hope that immediately after, people would remember the basic, decent humanity they’d shown to one another that day. Along with the memories of those lost, that’s what I’ve tried to never forget.
I’d hoped observances would stay apolitical. I remembered seeing some of my most cynical and jaded friends moved to tears by the site of a bunch of tuneless congressmen singing hoary old patriotic songs. But the insistence of those who proclaim that they’ll “Never Forget” has been used to mask the fact that we’re only a few years away from footage of the attacks being used to sell pickup trucks. The thing they’ll Never Forget is not the genuine grief of losing so many lives, or the inspiring hope of people putting aside their differences. Instead, they want to Never Forget that this unforgiveable violation could be used as an unassailable political bludgeon.
Finally getting angry myself, I realize that nobody has more right to claim authority over the legacy of the attacks than the people of New York. And yet, I don’t see survivors of the attacks downtown claiming the exclusive right to represent the noble ambition of Never Forgetting. I’m not saying that people never mention the attacks here in New York, but there’s a genuine awareness that, if you use the attacks as justification for your position, the person you’re addressing may well have lost more than you that day. As I write this, I know that parked out front is the car of a woman who works in my neighborhood. Her car has a simple but striking memorial on it, listing her mother’s name, date of birth, and the date 9/11/2001. Every single day I walk by there and know that blowhards who only ever saw the attacks as a video loop on CNN would never dare pontificate to her about Never Forgetting.
And I get even more furious at the random meaninglessness of it all. The pathetic denoument to the Anthrax attacks is a sad, small man who was bitter about being rebuffed by a sorority girl forty years ago. The mighty and mysterious terrorist network that was going to upend our daily lives forever turned out to be, while still a persistent and real threat, just as likely to be populated with incompetent and disaffected bumblers as with criminal masterminds. If they had a goal of disrupting the American economy and reducing our standing overseas, well it’s been accomplished, and yet it’s not as if that’s going to make the terrorists any happier. They’re just differently miserable, making the whole thing seem even more pointless and unnecessary.
The thing is, it’s in my nature to try to find a silver lining. I am proud that my memory of how decent people can be has not faded. I’m comforted that my vulnerability to images and feelings of that day has not muted. But finally, sadly, I’m angry that the spirit of remembrance on this day has so often been perverted on every other day of the year.
I’m not a Pollyanna — I don’t expect everyone everywhere forever to bow and scrape reverently at any mention of the hallowed date. The kids at school on the next block over are too young to even really remembered what happened, and I envy them that. But I did think that perhaps this one thing that, for all its terrible tragedy, had inspired some hope could remain meaningful. It feels like there have been people continuously chipping away at that idea for years.
So I haven’t given up, and I will still remember that day seven years ago for how a display of the worst impulses of mankind turned into the best of mankind. But I don’t think I can feel that untarnished hope anymore without feeling a bit angry and bitter about how some of the promise of that day has been squandered. And for that, I offer my apologies to the memory of those who died. You deserve a better honor.