A Forgetful Nation doesn’t mean we no longer remember the events of 9/11, any more than we have forgotten Dec. 7th, 1941 a day that will live in Infamy. Remembering the date and the events are one thing, but remembering the impact is something else entirely. They say that “time heals all wounds,” but that is not entirely accurate. Yes, wounds heal, buildings are rebuilt, etc, but what time really does is soften the impact of those wounds.
We now have an entire generation that wasn’t even alive when the Twin Towers fell. To put that in perspective, I tried to think of similar major events just before or after I was born. For me, the assassination of John F. Kennedy and the moon landing would be roughly equivalent. JFK was assassinated 3 years before I was born and the moon landing came 3 years after. I am intimately aware of both events and I have seen countless videos from the Zapruder film to “one small step for man.” It just doesn’t have the same impact on me that it had on my parents, for example. I remember exactly where I was on 9/11, just as they remember exactly where they were Nov. 22, 1963 and July 30, 1969.
During the chaos of the withdrawal from Afghanistan in Kabul, 13 military service members were killed by a suicide bomber. All but one of them were infants or toddlers when 9/11 happened and the oldest among them was in middle school, maybe, at the time. Time transitions major events from a near universally impactful experience to a memorable historical event. While the events of 9/11 still have a huge emotional impact for many Americans, for a growing number of Americans it was “before their time.” Their connection to it is similar to my connection to JFK and Apollo 11. Significant events, but lacking the firsthand life changing experience.
As a nation we will never forget 9/11, just like we will never forget the 4th of July or Pearl Harbor or a number of other major events in our history. What will be, and has been, largely forgotten is the impact those events had on us as a nation. Major events bring us together as a nation, as one people with a common cause. Whether we unite against a common enemy, in celebrating a major achievement or in mourning of a great loss these major events bring us together, as a people. It is that unity that a forgetful nation loses over time.
During World War II, the nation rallied together behind the war effort. They made victory gardens to supplement food rationing, women went to work as “Rosie the Riveters” and even African Americans, still segregated and living under Jim Crow laws, made heroic contributions like the famed Red Tails, the Tuskegee Airmen. On September 11, 2001 we saw people coming to one another’s aid, running toward the danger, doing search and rescue, even a totally improvised, largest in history, Boat Lift evacuation of NYC. For a moment, we as a nation caught a glimpse into the life of a soldier. We had each other’s back regardless of race or creed, age or gender. Our political ideologies melted away as Americans took care of Americans. Whether it was in person, through charitable donations or just through an abundance of prayer nationwide, we were there for each other.
But, time marches on and we took the fight to the enemy overseas. We stopped being directly threatened here at home and that common cause began to fade. Without that threat, that common enemy and common cause, we once again began to focus on our own differences rather than our shared experience. The media gave us new things to focus on, which more often than not pit one part of us against another part of us. Black vs White. Republican vs Democrat. Gay vs Straight. Rich vs Poor. Nevermind the fact that none of that had mattered to us in the days and weeks following 9/11, but we took the bait nonetheless. Slowly the date and the events became an annual remembrance rather than a daily motivating and uniting experience.
It will forever be marked on our calendars and there will remembrances, TV specials and reruns of the old footage. Sanitized footage that’s fit for public consumption. The memorials will remain and there will be those who make a regular pilgrimage in remembrance for years to come. While others, younger or farther removed from the direct impact of that day, will visit those sites like people today visit Gettysburg or the USS Arizona Memorial in Hawaii. I will personally remember that day forever, because even though I wasn’t directly effected, I know people who were. I will always remember where I was, what I felt, but most of all I will remember where WE WERE, as a nation.
For a moment we achieved the full meaning of the words, E Pluribus Unum: From Many, ONE. We have achieved that unity several times throughout our history, but alas, achieving it and maintaining it are two very different things. A forgetful nation doesn’t forget the events or even the significance of those events, but rather the greatest lesson to be learned from those events which is that we are a nation, one people. We may be different colors, shapes and sizes, have different beliefs, aspirations and goals, but the one thing we all have in common is… We Are Americans. We celebrate great things, as one. We mourn great losses, as one. We fight common enemies, as one. We just need to learn how to live our day to day lives, AS ONE, focusing on our commonalities more than our differences.
In the Gospel of Mark 3:25, Jesus states, “And if a house be divided against itself, that house cannot stand.” A sentiment that Abraham Lincoln echoed when he said, “I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free.” Yet, in the absence of a unifying event, we continue to divide and subdivide and sub-subdivide ourselves. As a forgetful nation allows time to distance it from unifying events of the past, it inevitable moves toward the next unifying (usually horrific) event of the future, unless or until its divisions cause it to fall completely. Empires rise and fall, societies grow and collapse, entire peoples reach incredible heights and then disappear forever. If we are lucky, the fall of our civilization will at least be recorded by history, but if not it will become a lost relic hopefully to rediscovered by some future archeologist.
As John Adams so eloquently stated,
“Remember Democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes exhausts and murders itself. There never was a Democracy Yet, that did not commit suicide. It is in vain to Say that Democracy is less vain, less proud, less selfish, less ambitious or less avaricious than Aristocracy or Monarchy. It is not true in Fact and nowhere appears in history. Those Passions are the same in all Men under all forms of Simple Government, and when unchecked, produce the same Effects of Fraud Violence and Cruelty.”John Adams to John Taylor, 17 December 1814
Our experiment in self-government is wholly reliant upon our unity and responsibility as a people, as well as our ability to moderate those who we entrust with the levers of power. As our unity wanes, so do our prospects for the future as a nation and as a free people. A Forgetful Nation forgets what makes it a nation and eventually it is a nation no more.