It’s the simple yet poignant slogan that tells us all we need to know about Sept. 11, 2001, and the 2,977 people who were killed that day, 344 firefighters and 71 law enforcement officers among them.
Those words are on the 9/11 memorial in lower Manhattan and on countless commemorative 9/11 displays across the country. Those words were the headline across the top of the program at Saturday’s packed Sept. 11 20th anniversary ceremony at Bakersfield Fire Station 15, where a 6½-ton section of steel girder from the World Trade Center stands as a solemn reminder of our vulnerability and our resolve.
And, in important ways, we indeed have not forgotten. We continue to honor the lives lost in ways great and small. We continue to tell each other their individual stories of promise, both fulfilled and unfulfilled. We marvel, with gratitude, that men and women still live among us who run toward the danger, not away from it.
But in some ways, we have forgotten. We have forgotten the spirit of unity that guided us in the weeks, months and early years after our most horrific national tragedy perhaps since Pearl Harbor. We have inserted tribalism and xenophobia into our hearts where patriotism once lived, and then have the audacity to call it patriotism.
Retired Kern County Fire Chief Steve Gage, who led a contingent of firefighters to Arlington County, Va., 20 years ago to assist at the decimated Pentagon, told the assembled crowd he felt great pride at the dedication of those who joined him in that grim task. But he said he also felt fear. “I was fearful that we as Americans would forget what happened that day,” he said.
Americans didn’t forget what happened that day, but many of them forgot what happened on Sept. 12. We awoke to images of rubble and swirling toxic dust, of a desecrated iconic symbol of national defense, of a smoldering hole in the ground in rural Pennsylvania. We awoke to street corners of flag-waving patriots of all ages and colors, and billboards, marquees and banners proclaiming a new national purpose: healing our hearts and reaffirming our purpose. And we awoke to a sense of kindness and solidarity that hadn’t been there before.
Genuine moments like Saturday’s observances aside, kindness and solidarity are in short supply today. In fact, they have never been more scarce.
Jeff Thielscher attended Saturday’s ceremony at Station 15 to honor not only the 2,977 victims of 9/11, but the individuals he knew personally: Charlie Murphy, a high school classmate from Ridgewood, N.J., who worked as a securities trader at Cantor Fitzgerald, whose offices occupied the top six floors of the World Trade Center’s north tower; and Michael Carroll, a former roommate, who was there with Ladder No. 3 of the New York City Fire Department. Ridgewood Township, he said, lost 12 people that day and Ridgewood High School 16 former students.
Thielscher, too, says he will never forget, though he admits he is troubled by the current national mood.
“That’s something I think a lot about,” Thielscher said, “because I see how pushed apart we are. How divided. Sad the way it has come to this.”
Former President George W. Bush, speaking in Shanksville, Pa., Saturday morning, addressed that division as well — division in its most extreme, increasingly evident form.
"There is little cultural overlap between violent extremists abroad and violent extremists at home," Bush said. "But in their disdain for pluralism, in their disregard for human life, in their determination to defile national symbols, they are children of the same foul spirit."
"And it is our continuing duty to confront them," he said.
It is also our duty to never forget that which is worthy of remembrance and reacquaint ourselves with the sense of unity we have allowed to escape.