For Many, ‘Never Forget’ Is No Longer About The Lives We Lost

Most Of You Can’t Name Five People Who Died On 9/11 Without Looking It Up

Five years ago, I got scolded at by a now former friend. September 11th had gone by and I had not posted anything about it on Facebook. This made her angry. I “always post stuff about everything else,” but she passive-aggressively suggested “I must’ve forgotten about 9/11.”

Photo by Lars Mulder on Pexels.com

The accusation infuriated me. I was in New York City that day and I saw the towers burning. I thought my parents were dead for a good few minutes – they were both supposed to be at or near the World Trade Center that morning. My father ended up being only a few blocks away. In the weeks and months after, I was too afraid to go back to college. It scarred me for a very long time. I took a class called “Sociology of Terrorism” just to calm my anxiety. Turns out the safest day to ride public transit is Thursday. Ask me why sometime.

So I asked the ex-friend who scolded me; name five people who died in 9/11.

Silence. then “uhhh, that firefighter from school, York…also Anne’s brother, what’s his name…and the priest, that was so sad how they carried his body away.”

For all her lambasting over the importance of remembering September 11th, she couldn’t name more than one person who died that day, and she couldn’t even remember that one person’s full name even though he was a member of our community.

So I rattled off the names I knew:

Rev. Mychal Judge, educated for a time at the same high school as me, was the first person to officially be labelled as a casualty that day; Steven Cafiero, who had just entered a new relationship with my mom’s best friend, Raymond York, a firefighter from the firehouse in my neighborhood whose daughter went to my elementary school, Charles Waters, whose sister Anne had died of cancer a few years earlier and was part of the gang of mothers who practically ran my elementary school (of which my own mom was part of); Chris Santora, a friend of my cousin’s who loved being a firefighter. There were the names we should all know by now: Todd Beamer and Mark Bingham on United 93; Barbara Olson, whose conservative commentary filled me with ire and made me realize I wouldn’t be following in my family’s Republican footsteps. There were Flight Attendant Betty Ong and Captain John Ogonowski, who was at the controls of the first plane to crash that day – American Flight 11, where passengers Berry Berenson Perkins- wife of late actor Anthony Perkins and David Angell, the producer of TV shows like Frasier and his wife Mary, all died. I never met most of these people – I only knew York – but their names fly out of my mouth whenever anyone asks me about 9/11. Because when I think about 9/11, I think about them.

On the 10th anniversary of September 11th, I interviewed a girl who was 4 when her dad died on 9/11. At the request of the subject, I won’t name her or her dad, but his was another name I rattled off to my friend.

The girl and her mother went to Ground Zero every year on the anniversary and a few times, she recited her dad’s name at the memorial ceremony. Their story was among many that we compiled that year for a special tenth anniversary 9/11 edition at the newspaper I worked for.

The 10th anniversary seemed to be a turning point. As the years past, the memorial services got fewer and fewer, and survivors felt less and less like talking. I was at a different paper in 2015 when we were trying to cobble together a special 9/11 memorial edition. Desperate for copy, I reached out to the mom of the girl I spoke to four years earlier, but she told me they would not be going to the memorial service that year and she didn’t really want to be interviewed for a story.

She explained that in the most recent years, they had only gone to the ceremony because her mother-in-law wanted to go in memory of her son, but she had passed away that year. Her daughter, turning 18, decided to no longer go. Her other children were adults and had moved out of the New York area. The mother confessed that she had been bullied and tormented by other victims’ families, and even people who didn’t have any connection to 9/11 for “disgracing her husband and father.” I asked to speak to the daughter and she agreed and I reached out to her. She agreed to talk to me, but not for publication. What she said shocked me.

“I’m sick of being the little girl with the dead dad,” she said. She explained that every year since she was five years old, she’d go to the ceremony and every year people would come up to her and offer condolences and say how sad it was that she lost her father, and when she was a little girl, it was helpful. But the same reactions she got when she was 5, she was still getting when she was 17.

“It’s like I never grew up,” she said. “I would never grow up to them. I will always be the sad little girl whose daddy died. I just didn’t want to be that anymore.”

She admitted that she never told her new friends at college – she attended a college in New England – that her dad died in 9/11. She didn’t want them to know because “that’s all I would ever be to them. The 9/11 girl.” But they found out and after that, it was all anyone wanted to talk to her about. At one point, she admitted to contemplating suicide.

“I didn’t want to go through the next sixty, seventy years as the ‘the girl whose daddy died in 9/11,'” she said. “I thought, maybe I can get a reset.”

It made me realize that we too often force these people to put on a grand performance every year for our own self-serving reasons, because we desperately want to cling to that moment in time. And it didn’t feel like it was about the victims or the survivors, but about something else.

That year, I did something dramatic. I killed the special 9/11 edition for the first time because we didn’t have enough content. There were fewer memorials services, and less stories to tell because we had told them all. My publisher reluctantly agreed. Not because he wanted to honor 9/11 – We still had a centerfold page of photos of memorial services around Queens – but for another reason. As a result, we got loads of hate mails and threats because of it. I was told I’d never work in New York again. But I had a reason, and it had nothing to do with not wanting to “Never Forget.”

As editor of chief of my newspaper, I was (for some reason I never understood) required to copy edit all the marketing material from the Advertising Department. In mid-August, I got the flyer for the 9/11 edition:

“ITS TIME TO REMEMBER THOSE WE LOST ON 9/11. LET YOUR CUSTOMERS KNOW YOU WILL NEVER FORGET. CALL NOW FOR SPECIAL RATES!”

The flyer further explained that or an extra $100, the ad would get a special “Never Forget” banner on top. I couldn’t roll my eyes hard enough. Fourteen years after those traumatic events, we had reduced 9/“11 to a reason to make money. If the edition ran, tt would be 10 pages of “Never Forget” ads and like three pages of stories. I thought it was trite. That’s why my publisher didn’t want to kill it – he would be losing out on thousands in ad revenue.

In recent years, 9/11 and the victims of the attacks have been used as cudgels against modern political movements like Black Lives Matter.

The truth was, we weren’t doing it out of any sense of responsibility toward the memory of those who died and the loved ones they left behind. We were doing it as an excuse to sell ads for an extra hundred dollars with a “NEVER FORGET” banner on the top. For that, my reporters and myself had to beg survivors and relatives of victims to relive the trauma of that day again. For that, we pleaded with them to put on that grand performance. The readers wanted to see it, and we wanted to make money off of it.

That was the same year my former friend berated me about the lack of a “remembrance post” on Facebook.

It had come clear to me that this was no longer about 9/11 or the victims, it was about what 9/11 and its aftermath represented to a portion of the population: a national consensus they agreed with: a neoconservative “America = Good, Brown Man = Bad” worldview, and they desperately want that again. Like faded movie actresses who obsessively watch their old movies, they were desperate to relive those “golden days.” We felt obligated to oblige them, and figured out how to make money off of it.

You probably saw a lot of these memes yesterday; “Nobody cared what race you were. Nobody cared about who you voted for it. We were all Americans” blah blah blah. It’s about celebrating a time when it seemed like the neoconservative, nationalist worldview had a national consensus and had reached its zenith. It’s about remembering a time when it was OK to hate Muslims and want to bomb them and it was considered taboo to protest the flag, the anthem, or even the (Republican) president.

For many of those who want to wash themselves in 9/11 memories, that’s what it’s about. That’s why right wing polemicist Glenn Beck named his movement “The 9/12 movement.” That’s why former George W. Bush press secretary Ari Fleischer said on Twitter one year that he wished those who weren’t alive or were too young to remember 9/11 could go back “and feel the gravity of that day.” It was an obvious swipe at the progressivism of young people. Maybe if they lived through 9/11, they’d be less leftist and would love America more.

So I made what may be my last 9/11 Facebook post about that last year:

There has never been a day in the past 18 years where I didn’t spent at least a second wishing 9/11 had never happened and envying those too young to have experienced it or remember it.

Nick Rafter, September 11, 2019

That post-9/11 unity, while it felt nice – and yes I partook as well, marching down Francis Lewis Boulevard waving a flag, even sitting idly by while Muslims got harassed on Crocheron Avenue – turned out to not be a good thing. “We forgot about all our serious problems and stood on sentiment” just means that you’re still ignoring vital issues that will continue to bubble underneath the surface. While we waved flags, held vigils and sung anthems; racism, bigotry, income inequality, the damage to the environment and the injustice of our criminal “justice” system all just continued to be wounds that festered, and are still hard to heal today. The “sense of unity” that we experienced after 9/11 might have felt good, but it provided the fuel needed for some regrettable policies to be born – from the PATRIOT Act to the War in Iraq, and it sopped up the energy we needed to tackle some of the problems that still plague us today. Many of the worst mistakes we have ever made as a nation were born out of that post-9/11 unity. It was unpatriotic to debate or question our government’s response, and because of that, we will be paying for those responses for generations. If only we had listened to the opponents of the Iraq War or the opponents of the PATRIOT Act.

The desire for a significant part of this country to spent every second week of September toasting a time when they felt like there was finally consensus around their jingoist, militaristic worldview is leading people to abuse and twist the legacy of 9/11 today. This year, one viral post includes a picture of NYPD Officer Christopher Amoroso, telling his story before derailing at full speed into an attack on Black Lives Matter protestors and critics of the current state of policing. We have now been reduced to using the valor of a man who died 19 years ago to cast judgement on people protesting cops today. To criticize cops is to criticize this hero. It’s sick and insulting.

So here’s my final thought. Sometime in the future, the memorial services will cease, the bells will stop ringing, the names will stop being read. Newspapers will stop doing special sections – if they all haven’t already and survivors will have run out of stories. Sometime in the future, 9/11 will be a chapter in history class, not a day for us to post memes or be shamed for not doing it.

But 9/11 is not going to disappear from history because we stop putting on light shows or stopped ringing bells, or because we don’t all post memes or hashtags on social media, the same way Pearl Harbor or Bunker Hill doesn’t either. It will forever be etched in history.

And we will never go back to the sense of unity that we had after that. All that was a facade. It wasn’t truly genuine or healthy anyway.

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