I visited the Flight 93 Memorial the other day. The field in which a hijacked plane was brought down by brave, everyday citizens is beautiful once more. The middle of nowhere spot suddenly became a cemetery for 40 innocent souls on September 11, 2001.
The area is both peaceful and disturbing. Visitors pay respects while birds sing. A large stone marks the spot where the plane cratered into the ground. Flowers bloom and radiate all around.
America is a nation of hype, and we are great at catch phrases. I was reminded of a couple such lines that entered our scarred memories after the 9/11 attacks. “Let’s roll.” “Never forget.” The former words were uttered by Todd Beamer as they braced for a counterattack on the men hijacking their plane.
But it’s that last one that struck me all these years later–“Never forget.” Have you ever thought about the different ways people interpret those words?
What struck me the other day is how some people use that phrase like a weapon, with a spirit of vengeance. It is directed outward, towards our enemies. I think that’s how I first received those words back in 2001, as if we were saying “We will never forget what you bastards did. We are coming for you. Good will win over evil. You will lose.” And so on.
As I stood in the visitor’s center listening to some of the phone calls made from the doomed plane by passengers understanding the graveness of their situation, some old emotions began to swell inside me. Fear. Anger. Sadness. A rugged man next to me listening to the same answering machine messages from victims turned away from his daughter to wipe tears from his face. This part of our national memory assaults our pride. A wound is still vulnerable.
Still others use “Never forget” as a phrase of honor. We remember the sacrifice of these people who acted heroically. Faced with the reality of a suicide hijacking–something the country’s pilots didn’t even have a protocol to deal with–the individuals on that plane took action, boiled water, and fought heroically. We’ll never know how many lives they saved.
I believe in sticking up for the vulnerable when the time comes. But admittedly I don’t know where we should draw the line between healthy, proactive efforts against injustice and the slippery moral slope of “taking the fight to them,” whoever “they” might be.
We need less anger and hatred in our world. Any rhetoric that focuses on attacking and isolating rather than loving steers us towards disaster and devastation like a hijacked plane.
I choose to interpret “Never forget” like this: Ordinary people like me, when faced with unfair, horrific situations, can act bravely and selflessly to do unspeakable things at great cost. They can act in this way for other people, especially the most vulnerable among us. For both folks they know and those they don’t.
At our best, we have opportunities to act and live in ways that serve and even save others. But if we do so out of vengeance then our work is undermined by perpetuating hate that poisons the well for future generations. If we act from prideful positions we’re only serving ourselves.
The right way forward is to care for others. Putting aside hate and showing love towards others is super difficult. It’s often terrifying, actually, especially if you’re caught up in a culture that echoes catch phrases about how “they” are ruining “our” lives or how great life used to be before they ruined everything.
America can be beautiful, but it can also be hideously ugly. It’s up to us to create a better reality. There is nothing braver than having the strength to love, and we should never forget those among us who do.