#NeverForget

“Would it really be possible to ‘forget’ 9/11?”

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I always dread the internet on days of remembrance. The internet is a tool for interactivity, and the expression of vulnerable, baldly earnest testimonial should hang in the air, uncommented on. Even responses wholly in the positive clang in the ear. When someone is speaking from the heart to a multitude, one wants the stillness of a church and the non-judgmental tenor of an AA meeting, neither of which describe the web in the slightest. This is all to say, I didn’t talk much on the internet about 9/11 yesterday.

But that’s not to say I wasn’t on the internet. Like most other days, I was online for my job, and couldn’t stop myself from scrolling through the 9/11 remembrances on Twitter and Facebook and Tumblr. Feeling weird about the expression of earnest sentiment doesn’t prevent one from seeking it out, apparently. One hashtag, “#NeverForget,” particularly stuck in my mind.

“#NeverForget” is a phrase that gets used both ironically and sincerely, seeming to have equal facility in either use according to where it’s attached. It’s a phrase that has become so ubiquitous, it’s hard to know what it means anymore. Like a lot of hashtags (and very strange that a hashtag can be said to memorialize anything at all), it’s more of a token or a gesture or a bit of punctuation to add at the end of clearer sentiments.

Would it really be possible to “forget” 9/11? This is one of the most talked about and rehashed moments in recent history, so is there any real danger of forgetting?

I think there is. Because the impulse to remember comes not from a historical point of view, but a personal one. As events turn from “a thing that happened to me and all of us,” and surely 9/11 was a thing that happened to many people to varying degrees, into “this event in history,” real remembrance becomes more difficult.

It’s natural to feel a certain guilt when, after a tragedy, normal life starts up again. One fights the urge to let the acute pain recede. It feels right to hold the image of loss in one’s mind all the time, or view the world through the hole it leaves.

But of course, it’s impossible to hold any image in the mind for long, much less a painful one. Events get contextualized, and time piles on top of more time. Nothing means itself forever but gets associated with everything that happens after it. Even pain grows up.

On that day, I was living in San Diego about three blocks away from the Mosque where some of the terrorists involved in 9/11 worshipped on a weekly basis. I walked past it every day on my way to work. The place was picketed in the following weeks, and I chose a different route to work. But of course I didn’t know this on that Tuesday morning. Then, I just sat on my couch and watched TV, nothing really specific to my experience of what was happening. The only real way to measure specificity of experience was through proximity to the event itself. And since, like most other people, I was far away from Ground Zero, I was caught in the communal awe and disbelief of the observer watching something awful and unbelievable. We were all watching and feeling the same thing.

The events of 9/11 are hard to think about now in their initial immediacy, since they’ve been co-opted by various political affiliations and contextualized and memorialized. So I think when people say something like “#NeverForget,” they’re expressing a desire to remember 9/11 as it happened, not according to all the other meanings that have been piled on it since then. They want to forget that a mosque was picketed and remember the pain of that morning cleanly.

Our images of the event blur, so maybe it’s right that the language and memes we use to evoke it should also be blurry. We want 9/11 to mean just one thing, the thing we experienced, but it doesn’t anymore.

Nathan Pensky is a writer and editor living in rural Pennsylvania. Follow him on Twitter.