The September 11, 2001, terror attacks are old enough to vote now, old enough to enlist in the military and go fight in one of the ongoing wars spawned by that woeful day. “Never Forget,” went the enforcer’s refrain: Grind in the horror, amplify the fear, profit from the rage, and take no lessons from the sorrow. That is the biography of the last 18 years, and the method has taken deep root.
Some $6 trillion has been spent to date on the so-called war on terror. That money did not disappear like your lap does when you stand up. It now belongs to a very small group of people neither you nor I will ever meet: fossil fuel magnates, media titans, weapons manufacturers and the like. The austerity measures peddled by Republicans as they gleefully passed trillion-dollar tax cuts are but signposts on this road to perdition, one we were already on for decades before the Towers fell. After the attacks, we flipped on the blinkers and slid over into the fast lane, and now, here we are.
“This timeline sucks” is an oft-heard online refrain. The quip is a nod toward quantum physics and the idea of infinite possible timelines existing simultaneously, each new one spawned by a decision or event. This timeline has seen the stolen presidential election of 2000, which begat the inauguration of George W. Bush, which begat 9/11, which begat the unfulfilled promise of Barack Obama, which begat President Donald Trump and the current accelerating calamity we share together, whether we all know it or not.
Such a gruesome farce is “Never Forget,” the slogan that appeared everywhere immediately after the attacks. What is it we are expected to remember? For those who survived that day and those who bore witness, the sacrifices of the first responders are seared in memory with little need for goaded recall. The tears which still come because of that day are bottled nightly and lovingly preserved at the memorial in New York City, yet one does not need a pilgrimage to locate that grief. It is in all of us; 18 years old, yet still fresh if we allow it to slip past the barriers we have erected within so as to cope and move on in what ways we can. Everyone has a 9/11 story, because that story never ended.
The powers that be told us to “Never Forget” for one overarching reason: to feed the fires of permanent war (and the ocean of money that comes with it). “Never Forget” meant “always be afraid, and always be angry,” because political opportunism and the profit motive are furnaces ever in need of feeding, and wrath makes for powerful fuel.
That “Never Forget” unleashed a tidal wave of anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant racism, as well as militant alarmism, is merely the price of doing business for those on the lucrative end of the affair. For the rest of us, it is funerals for friends who fell far away, neighbors disappeared by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, racist massacres at Walmart, and concentration camps filled with caged children at the southern border. The target of wrath is always on the move, but there always must be a target. An unsettled populace is easily controlled, and even more easily plundered.
Like an arrow fired at the sun on 9/12/2001, our inevitable trajectory downward to “President Trump” or someone just like him has been as ruthless as gravity itself. George W. Bush was a bloody appetizer, Barack Obama a lethal holding pattern. Like a corpse flower, the forces deliberately unleashed by the few against the many after that day have come to full, stinking blossom in the brigand’s morality cultivated by the current Oval Office occupant.
The orchestrated racism in the aftermath of September 11 made it possible for Trump adviser and vivid fascist Stephen Miller to lance the boil of his own bigotry and pour it into the bloodstream of an already infected country. Without that day, Miller would be just another racist on the conservative media dole, ranting into the echo chamber where hatred is the coin of the realm and the water fountains are still labeled “Whites Only.” Because of that day, Miller and those like him hold positions of incredible power.
The children in cages, the concentration camps, the anti-Muslim travel bans, the violence of Trump-inspired white nationalists armed with weapons of war, the active malice directed at all migrants not of European descent, the mortal peril baked into interactions between people of color and the white police state, is where the vicious manipulation of “Never Forget” has delivered us. All this, along with the permanent state of war that motivates these benighted imperatives, is the birthright of everyone now living beneath that hole in the sky over Lower Manhattan. It belongs to us all, whether we want it or not.
September 11 did not create these things, to be sure, but the racist opportunists in politics and the media made them policy with deliberation and intent, and Donald Trump has taken them as his battle standard. If it was not him, it would be someone like him, because arrows fired at the sun always fall to Earth.
There was a chance, 18 years and one day ago, to take stock of the decisions that had led to such unspeakable catastrophe. 9/11 did not happen in a vacuum. It was, in the words of songwriter Ani DiFranco, “the day that America / Fell to its knees / After strutting around for a century / Without saying thank you / Or please.”
The violent, racist tantrum that has been our shared aftermath from that day has made everything bad about this country worse by orders of magnitude. The day inspired cruelty and cowardice in equal measure at the highest levels of government, and took rabid racism fully off the leash. It made Donald Trump possible, and if it continues much longer, it may well lead to a seamlessly dystopian future where the Trump era is viewed as “the good old days.”
9/11 turns 18 today, and it’s high time to grow up. See this day for what it is, what it has been transformed into, what was foisted upon us in our most vulnerable moment. This country wears September 11 like a yoke, racism and war are the fields it plows, and it is enough already. It’s time to break free of this deliberately corrupted and cruel edifice of manipulated memory, and make the promise of peace our memorial in its place. This would, at last, be a proper tribute, both to the dead and to the living.