I woke up pained and heavy this morning, with the weight of a sprained ankle slowly clearing the fog of my senses. A headache that was all too familiar arrested my attention, with the mere thought of caffeine temporarily soothing the pain. The trek to the kitchen was unsuspectingly laborious but the sound of drip-drip-drip was gratifying like no other. I checked my phone. Pained or not, this reflex of checking in with the world through social media was a constant.
The first picture on Instagram that popped up was Teju Cole’s:
But the truth is that we forgot instantly. The pain of loss would always be remembered. The wounded know their wounds. Who in our open city did not wake up heavy and sad this morning? Memory is permanently dyed with any personal experience of horror. And the State, meanwhile, reliably organizes its pieties.
What we forgot was that meaningless violence—counterviolence, strategically misdirected violence—was the one thing to never forget. We forgot that defending the principle of the equality of human life was the core meaning of never forgetting. We forgot that to forget this principle was to obliterate both the Other and the Self. Never forget, more than the transparently false operation this and operation that military slogans, has been the vengeful motto under which this obliteration continues incessantly. Never forget, with its moral weight and ethical force, became the shield for any and every forgetting.
We forgot instantly, are still forgetting, because callousness is no less contagious than courage. The infamous day was not the culmination of a certain phase of mercilessness. It was its beginning. Weeping, mourning, me, mine, our, ours, but not them, not them, forgetting, forgetting, and all the while saying: never forget.
It wasn’t until I saw this photo that I was reminded of what day it was. The phrase “Never Forget” instantly conjured up images of Americans panicked in New York City that day in 2001, as I watched from a small television screen in our kitchen at Apalit, Pampanga. My dad was sipping his coffee while my mom was sitting at the kitchen table, both their eyes glued on the video loop of planes crashing onto the towers that the local cable news kept playing.
It didn’t make sense to me then that the benevolent United States of America would be the bearer of such horrific blows to its people, its honor, its dignity.
And then I moved here three years after that. My formative years in the Bay were filled with anti-war protests and literature by Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky. While the tragedy of the American lives lost to 9/11 was imprinted in my mind, I was slowly becoming more aware, more alarmed by the implications of what followed after.
There were memorials, conspiracy theories and more protests. It wasn’t too long before the ‘U.S. War on Terror’ became a norm, used to justify every military offensive and operation by the country. As these wars increased, so did the number of civilian lives lost around the world.
I’ve been reading Cole’s book Known and Strange Things for a while now, savoring every essay as much as I can. In one essay he also published on The New Yorker, he wrote about the drone attacks authorized by Obama that his Cabinet goes over weekly. I read this essay yesterday, before I sprained my ankle, while sitting in a car that was making its way through coastal California.
I was in New York City on 9/11. Grief remains from that awful day, but not only grief. There is fear, too, a fear informed by the knowledge that whatever my worst nightmare is, there is someone out there embittered enough to carry it out. I know that something has to be done to secure the airports, waterways, infrastructure, and embassies of our country. I don’t like war; no one does. But I also know that the world is exceedingly complex, and that our enemies are not all imaginary. I am not naïve about the incessant and unseen (by most of us) military activity that undergirds our ability to read, go to concerts, earn a living, and criticize the government in relative safety. I am grateful to those whose bravery keeps us safe.
Reading this a day before the 15th year anniversary of 9/11 was uneventful, but the blaring truth of Cole’s words are searing. And this truth, the horrible truth that I am a part of as a citizen of this country, is what I choose not to forget.
Pia Cortez is a writer based in the San Francisco Bay Area. She runs a book blog called Libromance where she reviews books and publishes literary features with a queer Filipino immigrant lens. She is a contributor at Hella Pinay, an online magazine for Filipino-American women and at New Life Quarterly, a literary magazine based in Oakland, California. She is currently working on her first novel.