It's the tenth anniversary of September 11th, 2001 (in case you hadn't been reminded, constantly, for the last month). Everywhere, all over town, are giant reminders that we "never forget."
What does that mean, "never forget"? Was there any danger of that? Most everyone I know has a flashbulb memory of the day, from where they heard it to what part of the event they watched as it happened, even down to what they wore the day of the attack. Flashbulb memory is a term coined in 1977 to refer to the memory of a moment or event that is so significant that all factors have crystallized in the mind, as a vivid snapshot in time. A flashbulb memory is usually highly specific, generally consisting of where a person was when they learned of the event (often including a vivid mental picture of the location), where they heard it from , what they were doing at the time of the event, and maybe what they'd been doing before, and what they'd do after. So for example, my dad remembers that he was walking through the house with a roll of toilet paper on his way to the bathroom when he saw on that John F. Kennedy had been assassinated, that he'd set the roll on the mantle when he stopped to watch the TV, and that the roll had stayed on the mantle all day long. I remember that I was sitting in the next to last seat of the middle row of my first grade classroom, and that it was lunchtime when they announced on the PA that Challenger had exploded.
Flashbulb memories, oddly, aren't known for necessarily being completely accurate. Many people, for instance, recall watching Challenger explode in the sky, even in areas where the explosion would not have been visible. It's possible that I didn't actually watch the towers fall live as it happened, that I only saw it afterward and that my mind has built in the memory of seeing it live because I saw the footage so many times after the fact.
But back to the phrase "never forget." Maybe it means to never forget the people who died, or to never forget the police and firefighters who rushed to their deaths in an effort to save the people in the towers.
I hope that's what I never forget, the America I remember in the few days following the attacks. The America in which strangers hugged and held hands and left candles on their doorsteps in memory of the victims and called their loved ones just to say that they loved them. Maybe that flashbulb memory is a little hazy itself... there was a lot of hate and a lot of blame and a lot, a lot of racism. But what I remember is driving down East 185th street at night and seeing candles flickering in the doorway to every other store. Candles on doorsteps to homes below flags flying in memory, rather than chest thumping.
But whenever I see "never forget," something in me feels something more menacing. Feels that the signs mean something more like "never forgive," or "never trust those people," or "never stop hating." That's probably just me and my paranoia. Or maybe it's the America I remember in the weeks following 9-11. I remember a lady urging me toward temperance. Saying that sure, she wanted to throw a brick through the window of the 7-11, but that would make her no better than them (it would also make her pretty damned oblivious, since the owners of that 7-11 were quite obviously Indian. The radical condemnation of everybody who looked even a little brown. The rumors and lies about Arabs practicing their next attack in suburban movie theaters, or from 7-11 stores. That Arab-Americans had been suspiciously missing from work in and around the Towers the day of the attack. That we should never forget the Muslim threat.
Then, that probably is my paranoia. Maybe I'm stereotyping Americans just the way ignorant people stereotyped Arabs. Maybe it's because the ignorant people are the loudest, just like the most evil and crazy Muslims are the ones that ignorant people choose to see. Or maybe it's just because my fair city isn't exactly known for peace and tolerance. Because I've seen a lot of hate and racism around here a lot more overt.
But I hope what Americans never forget is that we never, ever forget to rise up. Rise up against hate, rise up in defense of the innocent, rise up for love. Rise up and call the people we love. Rise up and speak for the fallen. Rise up above petty differences and love as radically as those terrorists hated.