Evil begets evil. It’s a brief line uttered near the start of one of my favorite blockbuster science fiction flicks of all time, The Fifth Element. It’s such a fitting line that I am sure resonates with those around the world on the anniversary of tragedy that united a splintered country, even if only slightly. It’s a thought that sticks out in my mind as I reflect on how that frightful day has shaped the events of the past twenty years following it.
Everyone has their story of where they were when they heard the news of the attacks. I was sitting on my moms desktop computer chatting MSN Messenger with my grandma. I don’t have a clue what we were discussing I just remember the message that tipped me off she said “TURN ON THE TV WE’RE BEING BOMBED” and so I did. I watched the news for a few minutes. The first plane had already struck the tower and the chaos had already begun. I watched for a few minutes until I saw the footage of the second plane hitting the other tower. I heard them repeat the phrase possible terrorist attack repeatedly. I immediately ran to awake my mom screaming get up we’re under attack!
She also ran to the living room. Within a few minutes she scolded me for waking her up. “It was just a plane crash” she said. I said no they said it was a hijacking. Moments later we saw the footage of the Pentagon and learned of the third plane. It was no longer a doubt in our minds. Suddenly the President came on TV and called it a terrorist attack. Suddenly it felt real. We knew instantly our country was at war.
I wish I could tell you what I learned from that day. Looking back on it the first thing I remember was learning how quickly everything fell apart. Then the entire country stood still as news of Flight 93 began to roll in. The first brave Americans willing to sacrifice their lives to prevent further destruction etched their names into the hearts of every single American that day.
What can I write that hasn’t already been said? Is it even possible to write about that day without getting hyperbolic? I know it absolutely was true, for the next few days we were ALL united as Americans for the first time in my entire life. It was a surreal moment where we didn’t hate each other, we saved it for those responsible.
What I remember is that was the only day I ever saw my dad cry with my own eyes. He didn’t even cry at his mothers funeral. I didn’t even hold back my own tears. I didn’t feel shame or less manly. I knew in that instant it was okay. We all did. We cried together as a country knowing this single act of terrorism changed the world, forever.
I remember watching as then New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani comforted us. I remember how we put aside our differences and let President George W. Bush lead our country over the next few days. It wasn’t until a few years later when we got drawn into the Iraq war that we’d start to lose faith in his presidency. In the days following 9-11 he was OUR president and looking back, he was there when we needed him those early days.
We all know mistakes were made following the attacks. We let our xenophobia, manifested as Islamophobia, take over our hearts. The phrases “War on Terror”, “Global Terror Network”, “Islamic Extremists” “National Security” and “Never Forget” entered our public consciousness. We handed over our privacy, willingly mind you, as our government passed the USA PATRIOT ACT. At the time, even the most liberal minded of us were willing to trade off a little freedom for some sense of security.
Even as we used the residual anger left over from those attacks, and that proclaimed War on Terror to move our military into Iraq, in those early days we just went along with it out of fear. We overreacted. We became the very evil we set out to destroy.
Before 9/11 if the U.S. military wanted to fly an air craft into a sovereign state, drop satellite and laser guided missiles on an apparent military target, we went through the United Nations or NATO. Post 9/11 we began flying our newly invented terror devices, automated drones, into wherever the hell we wanted. We declared it a GLOBAL war on terror, we had no boundaries. The rest of the world collectively got out of our way and let our military walk all over the planet taking whatever we demanded in the name of “Never Forget.”
We chanted that phrase as we systematically stripped Muslim and other Middle Eastern people of their God-given rights. We turned a blind eye as our country began abusing its power as we set up an internment camp in Cuba were we could incarcerate whomever we identified as a terrorist suspect, no questions asked. We even went so far as to demonize Edward Snowden, the man who opened our eyes to the NSA’s overreach under the guise of the PATRIOT ACT. We didn’t care, we chanted “NEVER FORGET” as we condemned him to death without even giving him a trial. When we captured Chelsea Manning we decided we’d persecute her in his place. We didn’t care we just chanted “NEVER FORGET.”
What began as a reminder that our country was not about to let the events of that fateful day go has turned into a reminder that we absolutely will never forget that day. We also will never forget the atrocities it has led to. Nor will we forget the personal liberties we sacrificed in the name of National Security. It’s easy to forget that we didn’t even have an NSA before 9/11. It was commissioned in the aftermath of that day as a reminder we weren’t about to let that shit ever happen again. We demanded blood. We didn’t care how much or even who’s blood we spilled, and we spilled enough blood over the ensuing years to fill both of those towers to the brim with it.
I will never forget where I was that day. I will never forget how it united us for a few days. I will never forget the freedoms I lost and today don’t even miss because they’ve been gone too long. I can remember a world pre-9/11 and a world that came after. The very fact our most popular video game, to this day, is one where U.S. soldiers continue fighting that War on Terror is a reminder how that chant, “Never Forget” has permeated every aspect of American culture.
As we reflect on the 20th anniversary of one of the darkest days in U.S. history there is one thing we can’t say today, 20 years later and that war is still raging. Our current president made a sacrifice. He gave up political capital to finally end the war that began moments before 9 a.m. eastern time in New York City on September 11, 2001.
As we look back at the events that unfolded over those last twenty years let me say it one last time as we move forward finally able to begin healing, NEVER FORGET.