And then, what happens next?
"Never forget" isn't wrong, but it isn't complete, either.
Somewhere upwards of 80 million Americans were born after the 9/11 attacks, and to that quarter of the population (and, certainly, to millions more who were too young to have grasped the event), what happened 20 years ago is a historical event. That still leaves roughly half of the population who were adults both then and now.
■ Not long after the attacks, the phrase "never forget" became something like a mantra, endlessly repeated. The 9/11 Memorial collects money for the "Never Forget Fund". The phrase is applied seemingly without limit, to screensavers and bumper stickers and hooded sweatshirts.
■ What was "never forget" supposed to mean? Those who were old enough to have adult faculties when they witnessed the event couldn't possibly forget. But, at the same time, no words or images could possibly replicate the experience of the moment to anyone who came later. Nothing adequately explains the horror of the day, the boundless anxiety of the days that followed, or the confusion that ensued about what ought to come next.
■ The moment stopped time. We "never forget" the bravery of rescuers who went into burning buildings. We "never forget" the grotesque scale of the massacre on peaceful soil. We "never forget" the fleeting moment of common cause and resolution to show national unity. Certainly, nobody who was an adult on that day forgets where they were or what they were doing.
■ Because the scale was so large (2,977 people murdered) and the scope so vast (stretching from New York to Washington to Shanksville), we were deprived of any final moment of national closure, like the funeral of John F. Kennedy. Deprived of this moment of cleansing grief, the only broadly available emotion was anger mixed with vengeance and apprehension. For days after 9/11, there was too much uncertainty and lingering anxiety to let up -- What if another attack was on the way? How long could people survive in the rubble? Why did it all happen? Our only real relief was found in moments that seemed defiant, like George W. Bush's perfect opening pitch at the World Series.
■ We "never forget" because half of us can't. But what do we force ourselves to remember? There's no perfect answer to what we should, but at least one component has to be a high regard for the question, "And then, what happens next?" So many of the subsequent events have changed the course of the last 20 years from what they might have been in a world without the attacks. But it is hard to escape the conclusion that we should always ask that question, rigorously and without apology, because big things follow whether or not we anticipate them.
■ We toppled Saddam Hussein; and then, what happens next? We merged 22 agencies into the DHS; and then, what happens next? We drastically changed our tone on immigration; and then, what happens next? We went after the perpetrators of the attacks and their allies in Afghanistan; and then, what happens next?
■ "Never forget" isn't wrong, but it isn't complete, either. Not unless we deliberately choose things to remember. No one will ever have a perfectly clear vision of how events will unfold -- either the ones that happen to us, or the ones we initiate. But we can make choices about what we remember, and that includes the lessons we transmit to those who can't remember for themselves. Perhaps the most important lesson is simply to ask, "And then, what happens next?"