The anniversary is Wednesday. We say “never forget” around this time every year and every year I hate that phrase. I can’t speak for everybody, but I was there and I don’t need to be reminded. I’ve also talked with first responders and other recovery workers over the years who honestly wish they could forget, just for a little while, which I completely understand. I can’t fault them for it when I feel the same way sometimes.
The anniversary is a challenging day for me anyway, so scrolling through my news feed every year and seeing the same devastation memes, shock-and-awe conspiracy theories, and the same vitriolic xenophobia, or catching burning tower footage on a nearby tv just makes the day that much harder.
For all its grief and horror, September 11 has also been a day of community for me. It’s the day to reach out to loved ones and colleagues to check in on each other and remember how short and unpredictable life can be, just like I did from my flip phone in 2001. So while I’ve been given the advice to stay off of social media to avoid being triggered by repeated images of burning towers, I also need to stay connected. Algorithms push “popular” posts to the top of the feed no matter how old they are, so I might see those towers burning for several days afterwards. Staying off the internet isn’t really a good option.
But more important and much bigger than my old case of PTSD is our cultural attitude about the phenomenon of 9/11 and what we do and say when the anniversary rolls around. What is it exactly that we want to remember when we say “never forget?” Are we committing to memory the precise height of the flames and speed of the planes? The names of the hijackers? Are we only preserving our jingoism for posterity? I hope not. For me, there is so much more to remember.
I want to remember the ways that New Yorkers spoke with each other kindly in those days that followed, and the way I literally sat at the same table as Muslims, Sikhs, Jews, Catholics, Protestants, and secular leaders as part of a long-term disaster recovery effort. We stocked food pantries and talked to youth groups. We advocated for comprehensive health care more than fifteen years ago, though it was only guaranteed by federal law this year (hat tip to Jon Stewart, who helped accomplish what we could not). We talked to social workers about the suicides of undocumented clients, the all-but-forgotten janitorial crews and skilled labor who cleaned up Lower Manhattan, that we weren’t able to reach before their health or income or status ran out. We watched as Special Registration separated Muslim families and did our best to support the women and children left to provide for themselves. We tried to bring some measure of healing and hope to our shared city in its woundedness. I want to remember that.
So instead of more pictures of the dust cloud, I want to see images that nourish our empathy. Rather than repost a burning-tower meme on Wednesday, I encourage you to do one of these things instead:
- Make a post that speaks to resilience, kindness, and service.
- Post a selfie of your volunteer effort for the day, instead of smiling in your pic at the Memorial (which I’ll remind you is the actual place where 2753 people died not that long ago, so please stop grinning).
- Talk to a neighbor, like we all did that week in New York. Check in on someone who might be struggling. Make a new friend, preferably one who doesn’t look like you.
- Look up the profile of someone who died on 9/11 and imagine for a moment what their loved ones are feeling this week, and send a prayer their way.
- Donate money to a disaster relief charity in a show of genuine sympathetic remembrance (certainly the Bahamas could use your help).
- Support a small business, remembering the economic losses in Lower Manhattan in the months that followed 9/11.
- Thank your local first responders for their service, even if you’ve been lucky enough not to need them.
- Check out the voting records of your Representatives and see if they supported the Never Forget the Heroes Act, and make sure they know how you feel about their vote.
There are so many ways to “never forget” that don’t involve traumatizing images and I wonder what creativity can continue to come from our collective trauma. If you have other ideas, please add them to the comments or share this story on your newsfeed with your suggestions. Mention these ideas to the folks who post the violence. Above all, please be conscientious of your social media choices this week. Those of us who see and feel your posts will be really grateful.