September 11, 2011

Never Forget What?

As the articles, video tributes and Facebook posts continued to roll in this weekend I wondered: to what end?  People have their hearts in the right place.  They want to connect, to a moment and to each other.  People talking about where they were that day, what they felt, how they coped on 9/12/01.  It's natural and good and maybe even cathartic in small doses.

Yet I was not feeling nostalgic.  I was there on 9/11, three blocks away from the World Trade Center.  I was unharmed.  I knew people who died that day, but not anyone I loved.  The day was scary and overwhelming.  It is the most important historical event of my lifetime, and I witnessed it.  But the anniversary and the looking back wasn't speaking to me.

When the Holocaust Museum opened in Washington D.C. in 1993, the Washington Post published a letter from my father, a Holocaust survivor.  My father questioned the merits of a museum dedicated to the memory of the genocide against Jews and other groups at the hands of the Nazis when another genocide was being conducted in Bosnia and Herzegovina, at a time when the United States and United Nations were not yet willing to combat the Bosnian Serb Army.

Have we learned from 9/11?  Darfur happened in the years since 9/11.  Half a million murders, millions displaced.  The killing of innocent people in Iraq, people and a country who had absolutely nothing to do with 9/11.  At least 100,000 civilians have lost their lives since the Iraq campaign began.  And we sent soldiers to die in a war that didn't have to be waged.  Those lives were worth every bit as much as the lives lost in 9/11.

How many lives have been lost due to ongoing environmental disasters, many of them preventable?

What are we never forgetting?

This is how I felt as I rolled my shopping cart down Seventh Avenue at 8:38 this morning on my way to the food coop, slightly resentful of the "healing power" of remembering, tweeting away our guilt and grief while Rome continues to burn.

Right next to the Park Slope Food Coop is Squad No. 1 Firehouse of the New York City Fire Department.  As I turned onto Union Street I saw that both fire trucks were parked out front.  There were 20-30 people gathered around, many of them brandishing cameras.  I slowed down, took off my headphones and turned off the iPod.  The front door to the fire house opened.  A dozen firefighters walked out onto the sidewalk.  They joked and chatted amongst themselves as the crowd hovered closer.  At 8:46 they formed two lines facing, and saluted each other.  One firefighter read a short statement about 9/11.  Squad No. 1 lost twelve firefighters on 9/11.  A wooden statue stands between the fire house and the food coop, the names of all 343 firefighters who died that day inscribed on its base.

The firefighter finished reading the statement.  Another salute.  The firefighters exchanged handshakes, hugs.  Someone from the crowd yelled his gratitude, and others seconded it.  The firefighters disappeared back into the squad house, never acknowledging the bystanders.  A private ceremony on the open sidewalk.

The moment triggered my own memories of 9/11/01.  I suddenly felt some of what I felt that day.  It reminded me how much we carry emotionally, just below the surface, and how small moments can summon up even deep and ancient feelings.

But my moment was not a tribute.  I was reminded how inept I feel when it comes to making the world a better place.  How inept our political leaders are.  How jaded and comfortable so many of us are, unwilling to sacrifice or too busy to do more.

I continued on to the food coop.  At 9:03 AM I remembered that we were out of organic string cheese.

I will never forget 9/11.  When will we start remembering what we have to do?

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