Yesterday was the 12th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. Around the Internet there were postings calling for remembrance. I even made such a posting here. Almost all of these said “never forget” in one form or another. As used, never forget means to remember the tragedies that happened that day and the following weeks, remember the feelings of insecurity we felt, remember the way we came together, remember the way we came out stronger and better, and to not take things for granted. Never forget has also extended to the Holocaust, the battles at the Alamo, and other tragedies or major events.
Never forget, however, is frequently a highly racialized and occasionally genderized term. It is also highly subjective. Never forget has not extended to the nation’s 250+ year commitment to the institution of enslavement, the deliberate annihilation of thousands of Native Americans, the illegal and wrongful confinement of Japanese Americans during World War II, or codified discrimination against women, for example. Particularly where racism is concerned, an all too often default response is simply, “get over it.”
Never forget does not even fully extend to the 9/11 tragedies – the event currently most associated with a never forget mentality. According to many different reports, individuals racialized as Arab or Muslim have faced much, much more discrimination since 9/11. As we all know, security has generally greatly increased at schools, airports, and at governmental offices around the nation. 9/11 also furthered and escalated the nation’s Military Industrial Complex. Unfortunately, the “united we stand” rhetoric of 9/11 and never forget doesn’t actually include everyone in the “united” part, especially not minorities by how they are racialized or genderized, and it is important to very specifically recognize this. Never forget is virtually blind to these other aspects and instead favors a “utopian-ish,” patriotic, homogenized vision of the past.
Notions of never forget are also odd in that they arbitrarily, intentionally or unintentionally, determine some events to be “worse” than others. Of course, absolutely, 9/11 was a tragedy, but there have been many tragedies before and after. How can one fairly determine what is “worse”? We should not judge, as a general rule, one event to be “worse” than another. Instead, ideally, we should look at the relationship between different events and use this to work toward a truly better tomorrow.
Ultimately, never forget is a feel-good term that lets some people feel better about themselves and the nation. One of the reasons I enjoy studying historical memory is the opportunity it provides to study the intersection of the past and present. And United Statesians aren’t very good at knowing about either one. United Statesians tend to think they are the best ever and that they have committed no wrongs.
So when we say never forget 9/11, it needs to encompass a broader range of the “truth,” as supported by evidence, about what happened and more inclusive, positive visions of the future.