A few years ago country music artist Darryl Worley recorded a song to remind some – and shame others – who had apparently forgotten the horror our nation experienced on September 11, 2001.
The song was ridiculed as simplistic and sappy, but “Have You Forgotten?” rose to the top of Billboard’s country music chart as many listeners felt their hearts – and their consciences – convicted by its unsettling refrain:
Have you forgotten how it felt that day,
To see your homeland under fire, and her people blown away?
Have you forgotten when those towers fell,
We had neighbors still inside going thru a living hell?
And you say we shouldn’t worry ’bout bin Laden.
Have you forgotten?
Time heals all wounds, they say, and we cannot thrive as a nation by clinging bitterly to such a wound, regardless how grievous. In the words of another country song, “Time marches on.” People fall in love and get married. Children are born and grow up. Parents grow old and die. The world must, and does, move on.
All true … and yet, have we forgotten?
For some, remembering that morning – truly remembering – may be too much. I’m not usually one who turns away from disturbing news reports or who shies away from war-themed movies, but I’ve never been able to watch one of those films about 9/11, like United 93 or World Trade Center, and I physically cringe when seeing video of the attacks. Pictures of those who lost their lives that morning, particular the children aboard the planes, nearly bring me to tears. I suspect there are many of you who share my unease.
Still … have we forgotten?
If you’re older than about 25, then no, you probably remember September 11, 2001 quite vividly, although uncomfortably.
Everyone has their story about that day; here’s mine.
I was 26-years old and was a press secretary for then-Congressman Bob Riley. We worked in a large office building across the street from the Capitol. It was a slow morning, and I was leisurely reading newspapers at my desk when the phone rang shortly after nine o’clock.
“Are you watching this?” my mother asked, her voice shaking. “You need to get out of there.”
I turned on the television and saw the twin towers burning. I watched, stunned, and feared it was only the first wave of something bigger. A few minutes later we heard about a similar attack at the Pentagon. My fear then grew into a certainty, so I walked across the hallway, knocked, and entered the congressman’s office.
Riley was seated behind his desk, fingers templed under his chin, watching the television intently yet calmly.
“Sir, this is an attack,” I said. “You need to leave.”
“Nah, y’all leave,” Riley said. “I’m staying.”
We did, and the staff was walking out together when a Capitol policeman came barreling through the corridor shouting, “Evacuate! Evacuate! Evacuate!” More planes were coming, someone said.
A mass of people spilled onto the sidewalks, cars were already jamming the streets, and the sounds of jets could be heard overhead. I walked the three blocks to the townhouse I shared with two other staffers – Rhett Loveman, an aide to Congressman Robert Aderholt, and Corban Gunn, an aide to Senator Trent Lott – and together we watched as the towers fell and smoke and dust and debris filled lower Manhattan.
I finally reached my sister, Shannon, by phone. She was stuck in traffic driving from Georgetown to Alexandria, and I was glad to hear her husband, a naval officer, wasn’t working in the Pentagon that day.
Not wanting to sit still, I eventually walked down to the little townhouse owned by the Rileys. The congressman was there with his wife, Ms. Patsy, watching the coverage and fielding calls. She offered me something to eat and drink, I helped him install a flagpole on their front porch, and then we hung Old Glory out to fly.
Later on I made my way slowly down to the banks of the Potomac River. I stood underneath a tree watching as the pitch-black smoke rose from the Pentagon, painting a dark streak across an otherwise bright blue sky.
It was in the low 70s, a nice breeze was blowing, even the birds were singing. It was oddly peaceful.
God had given us a beautiful day, and evil men had made it ugly.
For me, remembering that day – the sights, the sounds, the shock, the fear, the rage, and then the sadness – takes an act of will. It’s not easy.
So then, how can we balance the sacred responsibility of remembering such a painful event with the true discomfort the recollection brings?
Maybe we can’t.
Maybe wounds like this never fully heal, and opening them up is supposed to hurt. Maybe that’s what helps remind us of the true evil that attacked us, the true goodness that defended us, and the responsibility we have to ensure it never happens again.
And maybe that’s why, however unsettling, we should never forget September 11, 2001.