On September 11th some t-shirts I had ordered arrived. One of them looks like this:
I bought it because I thought it was funny and clever, but when it arrived I was a bit dismayed. I had forgotten about how the usage of the phrase “never forget” has changed since 2001. I first heard the phrased paired with “never again” in reference to the Holocaust. The message was clear: we must remember humanity’s past misdeeds, lest we repeat them. Similar phraseology has been used around other genocides, and the unfortunate fact is that we do forget, and we do allow them to repeat — Armenia, Rwanda, Congo, and now the ISIS actions in Iraq and Syria. The world has not decided on a shared mission of preventing genocide in all its forms, and in that way the phrase “never forget, never again” is comically sad.
Never forget the dinosaurs plays on that — on the one hand its funny, because dinosaurs, right? On the other hand it does make you think. A great civilization came before us, a huge civilization that rose and covered this planet, and then was wiped out in its entirety such that none but bones remain. We should remember this, we should remember our fragility as a species, as a planet. We should think about the costs of the things we do to our world, and to each other, and we should remember that there is no guarantee that we will survive.
But now “never forget” seems to mean something different, something more insidious. We apply it to the national tragedy of September 11, 2001, when a small group of Islamist terrorists committed a great atrocity in New York City that killed nearly three thousand people. It is a testament to the power of terror and the dangers of an open society that such a small group — 19 actors — could commit such a large crime, and one so symbolic. It was terrorizing as intended, and it embarked our country and the world on a new political, economic, and military path that has reshaped our modern world at the dawn of a new century.
“Never forget” is the wrong phrase here — we should remember the tragedy and honor the fallen innocents, certainly. But the phrase became a rallying cry for two wars of revenge and destruction that have resulted in far more lives lost while arguably doing little, if anything, to make America safer or the world a better place. It is not a cry for our shared humanity, but is instead a statement of division and anger. The phrase itself has been twisted, turned petty.
I’m uncomfortable with my silly little dinosaur shirt, but not because I think it is wrong to wear it. I’m uncomfortable because it forces me to confront the many mistakes we made after 9/11, the opportunities we missed, the actions we took from a place of fear and anger and sadness that were the wrong actions, with the wrong consequences. We have this one world, this tiny precious world, this world we must all inhabit together, but through thousands of years of societal evolution we continue to repeat the same mistakes, to commit the same tragedies.
So the shirt does serve its purpose, even if accidentally — perhaps it is more meaningful, more impactful than I ever would have thought. In that two-word phrase, “never forget,” is so much wrapped up meaning. It makes you think. Maybe it makes you think that I’m an idiot who got it all wrong, but you’re still thinking about it. I guess that’s worth doing, and maybe September 11th of each year is the time to do it.