The two words appeared everywhere last week in the days surrounding Sept. 11, the phrase offered like a magical incantation meant to conjure a sense of reverence in the writer or speaker, reader or listener.
Never forget. Or #NeverForget, depending on the medium.
I saw those words so often last week that the sentiment began to feel like a brand tagline, Madison Avenue wordplay meant to pitch a product rather than express anything sincere or profound. You know the slogans I’m talking about. You see them and hear them all the time.
There’s Nike’s classic “Just do it.” Apple’s “Think different.” McDonald’s “I’m lovin’ it.” And now America’s “Never forget.”
This brings me to a question, the point of this comparison: Sixteen years after 9/11 and the worst terrorist attack ever perpetrated on U.S. soil, what exactly is it that we are ceaselessly urged never to forget?
Monday morning, shortly before the moments of silence offered as tribute to the nearly 3,000 victims of 9/11, I listened to talk show commentators and callers recall precisely where they were when the jet planes struck the Twin Towers and how they felt at the sight of those magnificent buildings toppled at the hands of evildoers. On social media, friends posted images of the World Trade Center emblazoned with the Stars and Stripes, and offered tributes to loved ones and acquaintances lost in the tragedy. Elsewhere, I read screeds against kowtowing to terrorists, foreign policy prescriptions for the Middle East and political rants about the dangers of radical Islam.
There was a lot of jabber, a lot of never forgetting. Still, something felt like it was missing. It took a few days, but finally I put my finger on it – the thing I wish we would all never forget, the quality that would lift those two words out of the realm of marketing and place them back where they belong, as an exhortation not to mere thought, one more social media post, but to action.
You know what we should never forget? What it meant to be an American in the aftermath of 9/11.
We were at our best as a nation in those moments 16 years ago, clear-eyed, determined. The spirit seized us so quickly, it happened even as the terrorists attacked us. I am talking about United Flight 93 and brave souls like Todd Beamer, Mark Bingham and Jeremy Glick, strangers who recited the 23rd Psalm aloud and then rushed the hijackers in an attempt to take back that plane. I will never forget Beamer’s final words before he ran toward the terrorists:
“You ready? OK, let’s roll.”
Roll we did in the months after 9/11. The partisan walls that divide us – walls that today feel higher than ever – also came down with the planes and towers. We helped the wounded and the families of the fallen. We donated billions. We gave our blood, toil and prayers. We showed reverence through action, not through hashtags and memes. We exhibited compassion and grace. We were that best version of ourselves possible, the self we could be, should be, when crisis demands it.
That commitment to country before self was bound to vanish, I guess. New spectacles gripped us. Elections came and went. Leaders disappointed us. Kardashians fascinated us. Life went on.
Maybe now, 16 years later, a slogan is the best we can do. Maybe a hashtag is better than nothing.
Or maybe we would do well to never forget not only what we lost on 9/11, but who we were in that moment and what we, 325 million Americans, were able to do united as one.
– David Leibowitz has called the Valley home since 1995. Contact email@example.com.