Looking To The Past And Thinking Of The Present As We Reflect On 9/11 And Never Forgetting

Never Forget means also remembering what binds us together as Americans and how we have way more in common than not.

byTyler Rogoway|
U.S. Homeland photo


It is bewildering to think that it has been 18 years since those iconic towers fell and we lost so many of our fellow Americans in such a heinous act. Has it really been nearly two decades? It seems so vivid still, like it just happened a year or two ago. For so many of us, the events of that day are deeply carved into our consciousness forever. One can only imagine what the memories are like for those who were at ground zero or at the Pentagon that day, let alone what it's like for the families who lost loved ones at those places and on Flight 93. 

How could it have really been 18 years ago?

Although we focus so heavily on what came after the events on that September morning—how our society reacted and how we changed, for better and for worse—it's also important to remember what things were like before that first plane struck... Before the towers were turned into rubble... Before the memorial benches were installed at the Pentagon... Before the first American heroes of The Global War On Terror proclaimed "let's roll," rushed the hijackers, and ended those bastards' despicable mission before they could kill hundreds more on the ground. The photo at the top of this post does exactly that. It takes us back to an earlier time and it is stuffed with American icons of the era, including those wonderful Twin Towers. 

In the photo, USS John F. Kennedy (CV-67), also known as the Big John, is seen anchored off of Manhattan, with the Big Apple's skyline rising in the distance and the World Trade Center towers looking on. Also in the frame is the equally iconic Goodyear Blimp, its metallic envelope matching the big gray towers in the distance. The scene is alive with action and industry. The whole thing just screams "USA!" We are a country that thinks big and does big things—supercarriers, not one but two matching record-breaking skyscrapers, branding blimps—you name it, American ingenuity is truly at the heart of who we are as a nation. The photo reflects that with glee.

Here are additional photos from the same moment in time: 

National Archives
National Archives
National Archives

Big John and so many other ships visited New York for an International Fleet Review in 1986 that was part of the Statue of Liberty Centennial. President Reagan and First Lady Nancy Reagan landed on Big John to deliver remarks with Lady Liberty in the background for the event. 

National Archives
National Archives
National Archives

These images are one heck of a trip down nostalgia lane, but time moves on, things change, bad things happen to good people, and sometimes the bad guy lands a punch, a big, big punch. 

9/11 wasn't the first time such a thing occurred by any means. The surprise attack on Pearl Harbor is usually compared to that event the most, but there were other moments in modern American history that were plenty awful and gut-wrenching, too. 

Case in point is the tweet below that popped up on my feed yesterday. It shows a shattered USS Benjamin Franklin (CV-13), coincidentally known as the Big Ben, limping back to New York after nearly getting sunk in the Pacific and losing so many of her crew. Imagine New Yorkers watching as this ghost of a ship that looked as if it just returned from the fires of hell slowly passing by—a stark reminder of the realities of war far from home. 

When it comes to 9/11, out of so much bad also came a lot of good. America was united. We were instantly spurred to recall how important it was to remember that we are all part of one big family. We are all in it together. Sure, maybe we disagree a lot, and by all means, we are far from perfect, but we have much more in common than not. 

We are Americans

As for America's military, foreign policy, and general geopolitical response following that horrific day, we are still trying to figure it out. Shortly after the attacks, after military operations in Afghanistan kicked off, few would have believed that our brave men and women in uniform would still be there 18 years later, and especially that they would be there under deteriorating security conditions. 

Let's be frank—there were many missteps along the way. We let fear get the best of us way too many times. And worst of all, some Americans have since forgotten that we are all on the same team. That cohesion that galvanized us following 9/11 has eroded away. We have let our political differences, and those who stoke and capitalize on them, get the best of us. 

As I said, we are not perfect. 

Well, maybe some of us actually are, at least when it comes to selflessness. Like those firefighters and policemen who ran up those stairs, or the rescue workers who worked under horrific conditions at ground zero so that our enemies wouldn't get to take any more lives from us than they already had. Then there were the construction workers and tradesmen that worked so hard to see that we would eventually have some sort of closure on the events of that day. And what about our heroes in uniform? So many of which paid the ultimate sacrifice or left parts of their bodies in foreign lands. What about those Navy SEALs who were all but certain they were heading out on a one way trip into Pakistan so that they could put a bullet in the brain of the bastard who masterminded the events on that infamous day? 

All we can say is thank and support them however possible, and I think they understand that. But above all else, we must Never Forget. 

Andrea Booher/FEMA Archive

That term has morphed into something well beyond a catchphrase related to an event that is sometimes too dark to fully comprehend. I think for so many of us, Never Forget has become almost a reflex of sorts—an automatic reaction that instantly fires throughout our minds when 9/11 is mentioned or its imagery is evoked. It is a verbal manifestation of a place cordoned off deep in our consciousness. It's literally all we need to say to encompass everything that we lost on that day, as well as what we gained in the form of national unity and stories of super-human acts of selflessness in its aftermath. 

Never Forget is like a mental fireworks display full of emotions, imagery, sounds, places, and ideas, all packed into one crescendo. And above all else, it is a non-physical memorial to those we lost and to their unfathomable bravery. 

Never Forget may be words, yet at the same time, it is also too much to explain. 

As we look back, we also must look forward. How can we be a smarter, kinder, more productive nation that adheres to its founding principles with confidence and pride? How can we keep the predatory peddlers of division at bay and remind ourselves that we are bound by so much more than what the 24-hour cable news cycle and political party money machines want us to believe? 

In an age of skewed perceptions via social media and in a time when only the loudest thugs get the biggest soapboxes, the fact is that these things are only an elaborate illusion. Most people don't wrap themselves entirely in some political party's dopey flag or hate their neighbor because they voted for the other guy. Not even close. 

The best we can do in memory of all those who were lost on that day and in the years that followed due to events related to it, is to make sure it doesn't take another horrific event like 9/11 to remind us of our common bonds. 

That, on top of everything else, is why we should Never Forget.


Contact the author: Tyler@thedrive.com