This Sunday will mark 21 years since the horrific 9/11 attacks on our homeland in New York, the Pentagon, and Pennsylvania. I was a young Air Force Airman stationed in California at the time of attacks. A day I will personally never forget – but what do we as Americans still remember from 9/11?

I’ve told my 9/11 story countless times over the years. So yes, I distinctly remember where I was that day and how I felt when I saw the second aircraft hit the World Trade Center in New York City. But that is not what I will talk about in this article.

I was thinking about the anniversary this coming Sunday and remembering, as those of us who were adults when the 9/11 attacks happened are prone to do each year. I couldn’t help but compare who we were as a country then and who we are as a country now. Are we better off now than we were then? 

Never Forget

Last year, in conjunction with More in Common, YouGov polled Americans to find out what they remember and feel about the devastating events of 9/11. Some of the results are not surprising.

The poll found that 73% of Americans remember how Americans were united after the attacks, and 63% associate the time post 9/11 as one where American politicians worked together to rebuild and heal the nation. However, unsurprisingly, younger Americans who took the poll felt less connected to the events that occurred in 2001 than older Americans.

Which, to be honest, shouldn’t be a damning fact for the younger generation. While I know what happened on D-Day, and I revere that day, I don’t feel the same depth of emotion or personal connection to the events as my grandfather did. 

However, what is disappointing is that when those Americans in the Generation Z category (essentially those born from 1997 onward) were asked what Americans are supposed to “Never Forget” when it comes to 9/11, the overwhelming response was, “I don’t know.”

Now, it’s very easy to scoff at the younger generation and place the blame for their ignorance on their shoulders.

But I would argue that those of us in the older generations shoulder more of that responsibility. So what is it that Americans are supposed to ‘Never Forget’?

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What We Must Remember From 9/11

To start, let’s go over a quick cliff notes version of what happened 21 years ago. Four American commercial planes were hijacked by 19 terrorists, predominantly from Saudi Arabia. The terrorists were from a group called Al-Qaeda, run by Osama bin Laden.

Two aircraft were slammed into the Twin Towers, otherwise known as the World Trade Center in New York City. For those of us who are pre-Gen Z, the Twin Towers were an iconic component of the New York City skyline. 

The towers crashed to the ground in wake of the attack killing 2,763 people, including 343 firefighters and paramedics, 23 New York police officers, and 37 New York Port Authority police officers.

A third aircraft was slammed into the Pentagon, killing 125 military and civilian personnel as well as the 64 passengers on board the plane.

Finally, the fourth flight, United Airlines Flight 93, never made it to its target, which allegedly could’ve been the US Capitol building or White House. Flight 93 was heroically brought down in a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania killing all on board. More on that later.

In total, 2,997 people from 78 different countries were murdered in the attacks.

While all of that is very sad and jarring, I would argue it is only a fraction of what Americans are supposed to remember from 9/11.

A Picture of American Bravery

It wasn’t long after the 9/11 attacks that true stories of bravery and heroism started making the news. There are countless stories to choose from on that day. Police officers, firefighters, and even many who had retired flooded New York City to lend a hand. 

There are stories of men and women running into the Pentagon from the parking lot to help save their coworkers, risking their own lives in the hopes they could save others who were trapped.

Among the many and varied heroic acts that day, Flight 93 is perhaps the most talked about.

By the time their flight was hijacked, the passengers on that flight were aware of what had happened in New York City and the Pentagon. These were ordinary men and women, just going about their lives traveling from one location to another. 

These ordinary men and women did perhaps the single most critical American action. They took a vote.

That vote decided what they were going to do. Were they going to stand by and let their aircraft act as a missile killing more Americans? Or were they going to do the extraordinary: take back their fate and fight back?

In a fantastic display of courage, they chose to fight back. In the immortal words of passenger Mike Beamer, they attacked the hijackers after uttering perhaps the most American phrase you can think of; “Let’s roll.

Has America forgotten to be brave?

This example of American courage is what we should Never Forget.

But, unfortunately, one only has to look at the events in Uvalde Texas to wonder if we have forgotten how to be brave.

On that day, those who are specifically trained and that we expect to be brave waited an excruciating 77 minutes as a madman massacred 19 children and two teachers at an elementary school. 

Never Forget? I think we have.

Has American forgotten to stand united?

There were plenty of things that the late-night hosts on television had to choose from when it came to poking fun at President George W. Bush. President Bush was often the butt of jokes and rarely hailed for his eloquence or intellect. 

Which is not unlike President Donald Trump and President Joe Biden. Perhaps it’s a prerequisite to holding the job that you have to balance the tightrope of comical and frustrating to be Commander-in-Chief.

Unfortunately, however, 9/11 forced President Bush to be what I think no President wants to be; a wartime President.

I watched the President’s address to the nation, and in that address, he said :

“Terrorist attacks can shake the foundations of our biggest buildings, but they cannot touch the foundation of America. These acts shatter steel, but they cannot dent the steel of American resolve.”

At the time, we all knew what he meant by the foundation of America and our resolve. But have we forgotten?

 

Fast forward two decades and we’re spending excessive time trying to vilify those who founded our country and tear apart the things that make us uniquely American. One only has to tour Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello or James Madison’s Montpelier to hear the retelling of our foundation.

Some argue that President Biden is a wartime President. And some say that we could be on the brink of a Civil War. 

What words of inspiration do we get from President Biden?

“What we’re seeing now is either the beginning or the death knell of an extreme MAGA philosophy. It’s not just Trump, it’s the entire philosophy that underpins the – I’m going to say something – it’s like semi-fascism.”

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Never Forget? I think we have.

Patriotism and Old Glory

Each year on the anniversary of 9/11 during my 20 years of military service, there would be assemblies where a speaker would ask for everyone to stand up. Then they would have people sit down incrementally depending on which year they had enlisted in the military.

As the years passed, I was often one of the few still standing in my unit when the speaker asked anyone who joined before 9/11 to remain standing. The year following the attack, many young Americans raised their right hand and donned a military uniform.

Over the years, that desire to serve the country waned, and today we see record recruitment shortfalls. Is it the economy causing the recruitment woes? Perhaps.

But I would argue it’s a memory problem. We have forgotten how to love our country.

After the attacks, you couldn’t drive anywhere in the United States without seeing American flags flown from every home and business. The American flag was on every t-shirt, sticker, backpack, and anything we could put our flag on we did, and we displayed it with pride. 

CBSNews published a photo editorial with portraits of patriotism after 9/11. American pride bursting forth in the flags and ribbons and makeshift memorials across our towns and schools and homes.

Some showed their support through copious amounts of American flag paraphernalia. Others had various items that showed your support for the New York Police Department and Fire Department. Not the same today.

The View’s Sunny Hostin said of our flag :

“…when I drive into a neighborhood and it’s not July 4th and I’m not in a predominantly military household neighborhood and there are flags, American flags, everywhere alongside Trump flags, alongside flags with stars in a circle, I feel threatened.”

To think a symbol like the American flag would cause fear in Americans is beyond my comprehension. 

Never Forget? I think we have.

Remember 9/11. Never Forget Hope & Love.

When we say ‘Never Forget,’ what do we mean? I think a better question to ask is, what should we mean?

What happened on September 11th, 21 years ago, was heartbreaking and horrifying. But it was always awe-inspiring and transformative.

Like most horrific moments in history, there are key moments that allow true superheroes to shine, love to flourish, and hope to grow. Sandy Dahl, the wife of pilot Jason Dahl of Flight 93, once said :

“If we learn nothing else from this tragedy, we learn that life is short and there is no time for hate.”

We have, unfortunately, become good haters in this country. Nobody hates as efficiently as we do these days.

We must Never Forget that at one time it didn’t matter what you looked like, where you came from, or what your background was. We loved each other.

As the late great Queen Elizabeth II said :

“Grief is the price we pay for love.”

On that day 21 years ago and in the following months, we grieved together because we loved each other.

Queen Elizabeth II, God rest her soul, understood the need for strength through unity and stood boldly alongside her United States ally in 2001.

We have forgotten how to love each other, which is what we were supposed to Never Forget.