Opinion | What We Remember and Forget on 9/11

The boy clings to the undercarriage of an evacuation plane leaving Kabul. He is a teenage athlete, a soccer player of some renown in Afghanistan, yet sees no future for himself in a homeland now ruled by the Taliban. His only hope is to leave. But as the American C-17 takes off, the boy falls to his death, a dot in the gray sky. The disturbing footage of his fall, which circulated online last month, echoed the iconic image of the “falling man,” who jumped or fell from the north tower of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001.

The boy and the man may be separated by time, place and circumstance, but they are connected by a chain of events that began 20 years ago. Back then, Americans vowed to “never forget” what we collectively witnessed on a clear Tuesday morning, when 19 terrorists took control of U.S. commercial airliners, turned them into weapons and killed nearly 3,000 people. “Never forget” became a rallying cry. I heard it chanted at vigils, walked past it graffitied on walls, saw it tattooed on the neck of a man waiting ahead of me in line at the grocery store.

My work as a novelist has taught me that memory is idiosyncratic. One event experienced by five people will lead to five stories, each with its own peculiar details. Even when there is a single vantage point, the passage of time can heighten certain aspects of memory or erase them altogether. Like people, nations form memories in malleable ways, often revising and reinterpreting significant moments in their histories. They adopt rituals, build monuments, share stories about themselves that shift with time.

So how does the United States remember Sept. 11? Every year, the victims’ names are read by their families in an emotional service held in Lower Manhattan. The names are spoken clearly and unhurriedly, allowing attendees to reflect on the immensity of individual loss. It is an extremely moving ceremony, whose toll on the survivors I can only imagine: Each name evokes a lifetime of precious moments, a future that will never be known. Across the country, cities large and small hold their own commemorations as well.

One of the agonies the families confront is that their private memories are forever entangled in national politics. Their tragedy has been drowned out by the noise of everything else Sept. 11 has become: a significant moment in history; a justification for endless wars, xenophobia and nationalism; a crass, multimillion-dollar business; an opportunity to score political points and lucrative contracts; a wound that keeps getting scratched rather than allowed to heal. The National September 11 Memorial & Museum, which was opened in 2014 as a site of “remembrance, reflection, and learning,” encapsulates all of this.

The museum’s mission is to educate the public about the terrorist attacks, documenting their impact and exploring their significance. But on a recent visit, I was struck by the emphasis that had been put on recreating the day itself, in sensory detail. An art installation, composed of 2,983 watercolor squares — one for each of the victims of the 2001 and 1993 attacks — evokes the color of the sky that September morning. Audio recordings of eyewitnesses, played on a loop, express their shock. “Is this really happening?” one says. “I couldn’t wrap my head around it,” another says. The stairs leading to the lower level are situated alongside stairs from the wreckage in New York. In one room, a minute-by-minute recreation of the day is on display. Matt Lauer interrupts a live interview on NBC to switch to breaking news of a plane crashing into the north tower of the World Trade Center, and sirens blare from a loudspeaker as firefighters and police respond to the scene.

In this place, the memory of Sept. 11 is fixed in time, detached from almost everything that happened before or after. One exhibit, which provides a brief history of Al Qaeda, mentions that Osama bin Laden was part of a group of Arabs who fought Soviet forces in Afghanistan, but glosses over the fact that he was on the same side as the United States in that fight. Another exhibit, which explains that the global war on terror was launched in response to Sept. 11, features a photograph of U.S. service members at a Marine base used in the Iraq War, but doesn’t explain that Iraq had nothing to do with the terrorist attacks. There is a monument to responders and residents who died from exposure to toxins years after the attacks, but none for the people who died in hate crimes against Muslims.

Perhaps I remember these complicating elements of the story because I happen to be Muslim, had friends who were subjected to special registration, knew someone who was assaulted on the street because she looked Arab. The attacks were more than what happened in New York, Washington, D.C. and Pennsylvania; they had a tangible effect on the lives of many people thousands of miles away, for months and years afterward. But the curatorial choices in the September 11 Museum seemed designed to make visitors relive the trauma of the day, rather than explore or interpret its impact. As I walked through the exhibits, I felt sorrow for the victims, anger at the perpetrators, admiration for the heroism of emergency workers and even respect for the local government’s swift response, but at no point did I feel engaged in critical interrogation or even historical instruction. The museum offered a simplistic, straightforward narrative of what was in fact a paradigm-shifting event.

In the United States, Sept. 11 led directly to the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, the passing of the Patriot Act, the Authorization for Use of Military Force, the use of warrantless surveillance programs, and special registration of immigrants and foreign students from Muslim countries. Outside the United States, the attacks served as justification for the 20-year war in Afghanistan, the invasion and occupation of Iraq, the indefinite detention of prisoners at Guantánamo Bay, the use of torture at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere, the killing of thousands of U.S. and foreign service members, the periodic bombing of Pakistan, Yemen, Syria and Somalia, the deaths of some 800,000 civilians and the displacement of an estimated 38 million people.

At each step in this parade of horrors, we were reminded that the United States was attacked on Sept. 11. The terrible wound of that day was left open, causing pain and anger that lasted for years. In that continually grieving state, the public was perhaps more willing to accept what it might not have otherwise — security theater at our airports, constant surveillance, bombs being dropped on wedding parties in Afghanistan.

The fact that the United States itself went on to attack, and wreak even greater violence against innocent civilians around the world, was largely omitted from official narratives, as it was in the museum. This erasure is not accidental. After the initial phase of fighting, the Pentagon did not release regular and precise reports of civilian casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan. “We got out of the body count business years ago,” Mark Kimmitt, a retired U.S. Army brigadier general and former State Department official, said in 2018. “The numbers, while relevant, are not something that we quote, nor do we keep in our back pocket.” The work of counting the civilian dead fell instead to human rights groups, research centers and special sections of newspapers.

Likewise, the speeches of presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama were more likely to offer assurances that the nation was “staying the course” or “fulfilling our commitment” than to give an honest accounting of the wars. Every time I heard them speak, I wondered what goals they wanted to achieve. Was it the surrender of the Taliban? The capture of Osama bin Laden? The fall of Saddam Hussein? The staging of elections in Iraq and Afghanistan? Each milestone was reached, and yet the wars continued, largely out of sight. Within the first few months of combat operations, news of the wars disappeared from front pages. Nightly news broadcasts spent so little time on the wars that yearly coverage was measured in seconds per newscast.

But the erasure of the wars proved lucrative for some. The U.S. government outsourced almost every aspect of the war effort to private military contractors like KBR and Blackwater, including the housing, feeding and clothing of troops. Companies like Northrop Grumman, Raytheon and Lockheed Martin reaped tens of billions of dollars in profit. Waste and abuse were rampant. One study found that the U.S. Army had spent $119 million annually to lease 3,000 cars in Afghanistan, at a cost of $40,000 per car. Another investigation revealed that TransDigm, an aircraft parts supplier, had profit levels of as much as 4,000 percent on some spare parts. Even when the Pentagon’s internal auditors identified overcharges, the contracts were often paid out anyway.

It is perhaps telling that Palantir Technologies and Lockheed Martin are co-sponsors of a special exhibit at the September 11 Museum: a room dedicated to the Navy SEALS raid that killed Osama bin Laden in 2011. These companies have profited handsomely from the global war on terror and want to ensure that Americans remember this raid, rather than the years of failures and needless deaths that preceded and followed it.

That Sept. 11 represented a chance to make a buck was not what most of us had in mind when we saw the tribute posters that went up shortly after the towers came down. But from the commercialization of the phrase “never forget,” which appears on pens, shirts, mugs and baby onesies, to the privatization of the war effort, which shifted billions of taxpayer money into corporate coffers, Sept. 11 became a business. The museum engages in this type of transaction as well. A cheese platter in the shape of the United States, with hearts marking the sites of the terrorist attacks, was removed from sale in 2014, after a public outcry at the vulgarity of the display. But the museum store continues to sell a variety of other items, including toy police cars.

The story America told about itself after Sept. 11 was one of heroism and resilience in the aftermath of a brutal attack; the invasion of other countries, and the interruptions of their political destinies, had no place in it. Even now, 20 years later, the story hasn’t changed. There are no ceremonies to honor the foreigners who died in U.S. wars, no memorials to victims of torture, no museums to house artifacts from hollowed-out buildings or bombed funeral processions, no exhibits on the lessons that ought to be drawn from such spectacular failures.

The exhortation to “never forget” Sept. 11 and the erasure of the wars that followed are not opposing forces, but complementary ones. For example, criticism of the $700 billion defense budget often prompts warnings that the United States might face another terrorist attack on the scale of Sept. 11. “Weakness is provocative,” Donald Rumsfeld, the former defense secretary, told CNN on the 10-year anniversary of the attacks. Although the government faced a deficit at that time, he told lawmakers who were considering cuts to the Pentagon budget that they would be making “a tragic mistake.”

Over time, this dynamic between memory and erasure encouraged a destructive nationalism, which culminated in the rise of Donald Trump, who was elected on promises to bar Muslims, build a wall and stop refugees from the very countries the United States was bombing. Like his predecessor, Mr. Trump pledged to end the war in Afghanistan, but with his “America First” national security strategy, there was no longer any pretense at nation building or “winning hearts and minds.” In the last year of his administration, he struck a deal with the Taliban, whose offer of surrender the United States had turned down in December 2001.

The withdrawal effort, managed by President Biden, took an abrupt turn in August, when the Taliban gained control of Afghanistan with extraordinary speed. Despite months of notice, the United States seemed unprepared or unwilling to meet its obligations toward the Afghan people. Desperate to flee the country, thousands of civilians rushed to the airport in Kabul, leading to wrenching scenes on the tarmac, including the teenager who fell from a departing C-17.

In 20 years, a great deal can be lost to memory, but I hope we will hold on to that moment. It contains one of the most significant lessons of the atrocities of Sept. 11 and the only incontrovertible truth of the wars that were started in its memory: Ordinary people, thousands of miles apart, are suffering for political causes none of them chose.

If we are to “never forget,” then we must remember not just the pain and grief we felt on Sept. 11, but also the aggression and violence that our government unleashed. Reconciling this contradiction is the work we have to do in order to allow ourselves, and others, to heal.

Laila Lalami is the author of the novel “The Other Americans” and the essay collection “Conditional Citizens.”

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