It didn’t take long for Remembering 9/11 to come to mean something entirely other than remembering 9/11. It didn’t take long for the remembrances and tributes to stand less for shared grief and more for a reminder of “why we fight” - or rather, why our government has invaded a bunch of countries it has long had its eye on since that date.
It has become less a time for sorrow and more a time for loudly proclaiming that we are Number One, a time for being Proud to Be American - although the source of that pride is always a little vague. Proud for being the victims of a terrorist attack? Or proud of the decades of violent foreign intervention that led up to that attack? Whatever the reason, 9/11 is now a day of pride. It is not a day for reminding anyone of the violence wrought by our own government in the Middle East for the half century preceding 9/11. Not Today of All Days. Nor is it a time for pointing to the hundreds of thousands of civilians killed by American soldiers and bombs and white phosphorus since that date - people whose lives mattered just as much as those of the nearly 3,000 killed in America on 9/11. Not Today of All Days.
But I do remember 9/11. I remember so many of the details of that day, and of the days and weeks that followed. I prefer to remember those details, and to remember the way that the lives of so many individuals were shattered on that day. For myself, I prefer to think of this day as a reminder, not of why it is acceptable for my government to go on killing innocent people in foreign lands, but of how it is always ordinary people who have their lives destroyed by the power struggles of politicians and rulers.
Here’s what I remember: I remember walking around downtown Manhattan in the weeks following the attack, wearing first a handkerchief and later a surgical mask, so I didn’t have to breathe in the stench when the wind blew the wrong way. I was living in a tiny little apartment above an Irish pub that was once a church, and I sealed my one window in plastic and ran a HEPA filter. I remember bands of tourists taking pictures of themselves by the site, some climbing up on fencing to get a better shot.
What I remember most were the fliers. All over the city, and especially downtown, people had posted flyers of their lost loved ones, asking for any help in finding them in the event that they were still alive. In hindsight, it seems pathetic and pointless. They had to know those people weren’t coming back. But at the time it made perfect sense. And as we all walked through our daily lives in the city, those faces were always looking at us.
One day, I was walking somewhere near Wall Street, and I noticed one of those pictures. It wasn’t like the other ones, a recent snapshot or portrait photo that could most easily be used to identify the person. This was an older picture, with a few paragraphs below it. The photo was of a young man, maybe a teenager, maybe a little younger, and maybe he was standing with a bicycle - I don’t remember. This was before cell phones had cameras, and in any case I didn’t want to be one of “those” people. The ones who crowded around the still smoking site with glee on their faces to snap a picture of history.
I stood and read the flier. The writer started off by saying that he wasn’t seeking help looking for his friend. It had been many weeks since the attacks and he had no illusion that his friend was still alive. He just wanted to tell the world about the person he had lost. And he did. The man had been his best friend since childhood. He had taught him how to ride a bike. The writer told about times they had spent together, how their lives had changed as the years went by but how that bond had never been lost and how they were still best friends. Or how they had been, until that day.
By the time I finished reading there were tears running down my face. Others had stopped to read the flyer too but none of us looked at each other or aknowledged each others’ presence. We stopped to read, probably cried, and then continued on our way.
Today of All Days, I’m going to remember that a lot of people had their lives torn apart because of someone else’s stupid war. I’m going to remember how powerless I felt as I watched my country become an even more beligerent neighbor and a more authoritarian place to live in. I’m going to remember what it was like to live in the world before that day, and I’m going to hope that one day we can live that way again. But mostly I’m going to remember a man I didn’t even know, who taught his best friend how to ride a bicycle.