(Maisel, Todd/New York Daily News)
In early August 2003, just as we finished basic training for incoming freshmen, my West Point class learned our motto: “Always Remember, Never Surrender.” “Never Surrender” is a traditional military creed, similar to themes embedded in the mottos of all military units, but “Always Remember” is distinct to our class: It is our homage to the losses suffered on 9/11.
Our class was deeply connected to the terrorist attacks — they moved us to serve and shaped the world we entered in the military. Our new motto expressed the duty we had to remember the terrorist attacks and the lives lost. It was also our pledge to uphold what President George W. Bush described in his National Cathedral speech three days after the attack as Americans’ responsibility to history: “to answer these attacks and rid the world of evil.”
The nation honored that pledge in 2011, when Navy SEALs killed Osama Bin Laden, and again in July, when a CIA drone strike killed Ayman al-Zawahiri. But over the years as I transitioned out of the military and America withdrew from Afghanistan, I found myself asking whether the responsibilities the president laid out then still capture the meaning and lessons of 9/11.
The question of what “Always Remember” means takes on greater importance the more the attacks recede into history. We are now more than a generation removed from that Tuesday in September 2001. In 2022, approximately one in four Americans was born after 9/11, and in a couple of decades, those born after the attacks will constitute a majority of the population.
We are now in the window of time where the meaning we associate with 9/11 will be shaped more by what we teach and learn than by what we remember from personal experience. This of course happens for every event with the passage of time, but the implications for the country are more profound in this instance given the unique role 9/11 had in shaping the past 21 years.
In new research from my organization, More in Common U.S., we asked Americans: What are we supposed to “Never Forget” about 9/11? Overwhelmingly, Americans said the victims of the attack (and their families) and the sacrifices of first responders. This sentiment held true across generations, suggesting that this meaning of “Never Forget” has transcended lived experience and become part of our broad public memory.
The research identified one additional sentiment that Americans associate with 9/11: fear. When asked what defined America immediately after the attacks, Americans were most likely to select “fear of terrorism.” And it’s not clear that this fear ever fully went away: Only 45% of Americans say the country is safer today from foreign terrorism than it was before 9/11.
Which takes us back to the question, what is it we should always remember from 9/11? There is no single answer to this question. For me, with the benefit of time, two responsibilities stand out as critical to hold on to.
The first is to remember those lost and to care for those still suffering from the attacks. The second is to remember that we are strongest when we come together.
While our research suggests Americans are largely passing down the importance of the first responsibility, it’s not clear today that the second one is part of the story Americans will remember from 9/11. Only 40% of Americans feel we should never forget the sense of unity the country experienced after the attack. That sentiment is even weaker among Millennials and Generation Z, who are also least likely to say “united” described America in the period following 9/11.
These sentiments among younger Americans reflect a multitude of factors, including the reality that the country grew more polarized within a few years after 9/11 and the sense of unity never fully extended to all Americans. Younger Americans are likelier to identify the post-9/11 period with the mistreatment of Muslim Americans, for example. Younger Americans’ attitudes towards 9/11 also likely reflect their current outlook on the state of the country and their place in it.
How we feel in the moment influences how we remember the past. For many younger Americans, the present is a time of estrangement from the country. Close to 40% of Generation Z feel excluded from American society or are unsure whether they are accepted. This suggests it is difficult to remember the feelings of unity America experienced after 9/11 if you feel like you don’t belong in the country now.
This also tells us it will not be enough for national leaders to harken back to a sense of unity that is most salient for older Americans. Unity is something that can’t be communicated; it has to be felt.
This is what I experienced when I first visited West Point in October 2001. The visit had been scheduled earlier in the summer, in the time before Al Qaeda became a household name. I don’t know what it would have been like if I had visited in August 2001, but in October, just weeks after 9/11, the overwhelming feeling was one of solidarity. It was not anything the cadets said that communicated this, but rather it was the way they engaged with one another.
It was obvious that whatever was coming, they would face it side by side. Even as a visiting high school student, I felt it too: We were in this together.
War and the military are extreme cases, but how often today do we feel anything approaching such a sense of solidarity? How often today do we feel that we are in something together with our fellow Americans, especially those from different backgrounds? Unfortunately for many, the answer is too infrequently, if ever.
If we want current and future generations to find in the memory of 9/11 inspiration for how America can rise together in the face of adversity, we must create more opportunities for people to feel a sense of togetherness in their day-to-day lives.
In this, New Yorkers provide an example for the nation. In our research, New York City residents were the most likely to describe America as “strong” and “resilient” in the aftermath of the attacks. New Yorkers were also much more likely to say that something we should never forget about 9/11 is the resilience of New York City and its residents.
This is not to minimize the challenges New York City faces with respect to cultivating a shared sense of belonging among all its residents, but to note that New Yorkers are able to draw on a shared story of strength, camaraderie and courage in the face of soul-wrenching loss and hardship.
As a country, we need more such shared stories. Our sense of unity is what makes America, an incredibly diverse society sprawled across a massive geographical distance, function as a democracy. True unity neither obscures our differences nor overlooks areas of deep disagreement, but rather situates these very things in a context that reminds us that in important ways, as 9/11 showed, we share a common fate.
This sense of a shared fate is what moves us to listen and engage with those who are different, and to respect the rights of those we disagree with, because we know it is only in doing so that we can secure the liberty and equality aspired to in our founding documents.
As we pause to commemorate the anniversary of 9/11, we should work to infuse how we remember 9/11 with meaning and purpose for the present and future. In our calls to remember the loss, fear and suffering caused by 9/11, we should also speak to the dreams, purpose and love given new meaning by that day.
Inspiration for how we do this is found in the example set by Major John Hottell III. Hottell died in a helicopter crash in Vietnam in 1970 and is buried on the grounds of West Point. He penned his own obituary a year before his crash. In it he explained: “…I deny that I died FOR anything — not my country, not my Army, not my fellow man, none of these things. I LIVED for these things, and the manner in which I chose to do it involved the very real chance that I would die in the execution of my duties.”
We can adopt a similar attitude for how we shape our memories of 9/11. We can reflect on what it is that 9/11 reminds us to live for today and in the days to come. We can remember our collective displays of courage and unity, though imperfect, for how they speak to the fact that solidarity is the most powerful antidote against fear. And we can inspire the next generation of Americans who did not live through 9/11 to see that we choose to memorialize the moment not only because of the horror we experienced, but because it reminds us that there is more that binds than divides Americans.
Vallone, a veteran who served in Afghanistan, co-leads the Veterans and Citizens Initiative, a non-partisan organization of veterans and military families. He is the U.S. director of More in Common, a nonprofit focused on bringing Americans together.
Copyright © 2022, New York Daily News
Copyright © 2022, New York Daily News
(Maisel, Todd/New York Daily News)