Before the dust from the Twin Towers had settled into the streets along lower Manhattan, the edict "never forget" was bestowed upon us. At the time, it felt utterly ridiculous. Who could ever forget this? Like many, many others, I can retrace the exact steps of that day. I won't bore you with the details as it echoes nearly every story from someone whose lives were (thankfully) spared from any direct involvement. It felt like a mundane day, a gym teacher told us about it, we went to watch it in school, I couldn't believe it.
Looking back, the most palpable emotion wasn't sadness but its more aggressive cousin, fear. This permutation was unlike waiting for someone to pop out of a haunted house or when your plane hits a particularly hairy bit of turbulence. Long after I had returned home from my long day of class, just as the pieces of who had perpetrated this heinous act were coming together, I remember watching CNN. This was the onset of our current 24-hours news cycle, and they were laying down a fantastic blueprint. I was alerted to the various ways I could die inside my house, twenty-five miles northwest of New York City. Maybe it would be from the outer rings of a blast from a suitcase nuke the terrorists were sure to have. Or a chemical attack could occur, and my life would be in the hands of the fickle winds that would blow death over a body of water or over one of the most densely-populated areas in the country.
None of those threats truly got to me. They didn't make me shake uncontrollably for hours under my comforter on this, a beautiful late summer/early fall day. The sensation was so prolonged, the message so real, that a bath in boiling water would singe my skin but never really affect anything inside of it. It was a simple shot from a land-line phone with a video conferencing camera attached. The camera's quality was poor, probably no better than the iPhone's front-facing camera. Through the green-tinted lens, ostensibly night vision I suppose, there were large shadowy objects in the distance. No movement outside of the grain changing in the green hue, reminiscent of The Matrix screen saver we all undoubtedly used.
Then, a flash. And another, and another, each rapidly shooting through the air at terrifying speed, matched with a terrifying sound. The reporter, based in Afghanistan, mentioned that these were missiles being lobbed about by an opposition force to the Taliban, a group whose silly-seeming name would become all too normal for my tongue to wrap around.
And in that moment my fear wasn't for my life to end. It was the knowledge that it was inevitable that this was how I would die. Never in my life had I ever felt so vulnerable. My parents couldn't protect me, my government couldn't protect me, my military couldn't protect me, even my teenage delusions of immortality fell to the wayside. We had all been drafted into a war we did not want to wage against a group of people who technically had no real country. Everything was falling apart all at once--even the sky--and there wasn't a damn thing that anyone could do about it. Even those of us in the greatest, strongest, richest country in the history of the world.
Yesterday marks the ten year anniversary of the terrorist attacks on that day, gaining extra importance because of the opening of the 9/11 Memorial as well as being a nice, round number (hope you purchased your scarred memories a gift of tin or aluminum to mark the occasion!) While I distinctly remember how I felt, and what I learned, from that day, it seems like everyone else's memories have grown a tad…fuzzy.
Coupled with the anniversary was the perfect melding of terror and recreation: it was the first Sunday for the NFL during its 2011/2012 season. A month or so removed from its lock out--where the owners and players tried to figure out the best way to cut their $7 billion dollar annual profits--the NFL was ready to remind the country, and the world, that they had the most popular sport in the United States. This fact was not lost on me when the local Fox affiliate decided to cut off the "Reading of the Names" ceremony at the WTC memorial to get to the out-of-market Eagles/Rams game, right as they hit the "T" last names.
But who could blame them? One doesn't want to be reminded of the terrible reality that befell us all ten years ago. No one wants to be transported back to that time where we had such pain, such fear. Instead, we unfurl giant American flags, chant "U-S-A!" at as many opportune times as possible, and watch over-produced segments of taps being played at as many important-and-maudlin places as possible.
The transition from the reading of the names ceremony into the grandeur and overwhelming theatricality of the NFL is no coincidence: its our exact course of dealing with September 11th. Instead of being vulnerable, we are strong. Instead of being blindsided, we're now acutely aware of what is coming every year: a bombastic grandstanding to show just how fucking fine we are, like a spurned girlfriend who looks great any time she has to go to that bar you both liked so much. Go ahead, attack us, you fucking terrorists. You'll just give us another day to be super patriotic.
So we pound our chests with the added caveat of "never forgetting," the phrase that has now turned into a point of pride. Don't believe me? Take a look at this abominable Budweiser commercial that played throughout the day's games. It features their famous Clydesdale horses, the symbol they use when they're trying to be overtly sentimental and always succeed, taking stock at the New York skyline from New Jersey (even though they were just on the Brooklyn Bridge). Once they're in view, they dip their heads, acknowledging the sacrifices made and the murders committed on that day (we assume; none of the horses were Mr. Ed). Then the screen flashes "We'll never forget" before it fades into the Budweiser logo. It should just say "We'll never forget, but our competitors have not explicitly SAID that they haven't forgotten, so you should buy our beer." A truly American move perpetrated by a company with a German name and is based in Belgium. In so deliberately co-opting the event, people don't even realize it. They see pretty horses, tacky sentiment, and then an under-the-radar pitch. It's the small kind of gesture that will resonate unconsciously in the brain for six packs to come.
Same goes for this particular ad, which was apparently directed by Spike Lee, who must have to pay off a second mortgage. The idea is almost as insidious as animals acting like humans: children acting like humans. Here, gaggles of local New York children are dispatched to fire houses to sing a just-now-acceptable-to-hear-again song's chorus. How do the lyrics "a concrete jungle where dreams are made of / there's nothing you can't do" pertains to the incident, or these men, eludes me. But no matter. You see all you need to: adorable kids, a song about New York that is most certainly well-known, NY firefighters, and the State Farm corporate logo, showing that they…I don't know, support child a cappella groups, outside of their own brand interests.
All of this pushes a real issue farther from the public's eye: the problem with the first responders. You remember them, right? The "true heroes" of the attack who put their health and security secondary to helping complete strangers while jet fuel burned down steel buildings in a way that had never been conceptualized by modern science? The ones who, as I cowered in my bed in a suburban home, were already sorting rubble, trying to make sense of who was left around them and who they still needed to find? The ones who stayed on that smoldering pile for hours, days, weeks, trying in vain to find something resembling a person, be it alive or dead? Those folks?
Well, they're currently getting fucked. Hard.
After a great deal of resistance, a bill was recently passed by the House to offer some financial support to the families and members of the first responders who have become ill, both gravely and otherwise. The "Zadroga Bill," named after a fallen police officer who could not survive long enough to see the bill he so desperately needed to be passed actually get enacted, was offering some money to those who needed it most. It was to be in a familiar sum: $7 billion. But, like most things involved with government, there are stipulations. For example, if you got carpal tunnel syndrome from digging out of the rubble, then your medical expenses are covered.
If you contracted cancer, however, you're left in the cold. Read this fantastic (and heart-wrenching) article about it from the Star-Ledger. For you see, there is no specific scientific link that says prolonged exposure to a fiery conglomeration of jet fuel, plane parts, steel, concrete, floors upon floors of paper and office supplies, and, of course, human remains, could be harmful to you. Like all matters in Washington, common sense has no grounds.
So as we slowly but surely move towards a day of remembrance that is more about hawking cars and sofas than quiet reflection, do try to remember what is most important from that fateful day. Because we've already begun to forget.