It started with a rumble under our feet. Then our desks began to sway, and dust fell from the ceiling. My co-workers and I looked around, at first confused and then increasingly alarmed. Perhaps if we were Californians, we would have known that the floor-shaking temblor that made headlines last month was an earthquake. But we were in Washington, D.C., and many of us would jump to a conclusion that was far more sinister: terrorist attack.
Never forget. Ten years after 9/11, it seems to me the most preposterous of slogans. How could we possibly? Reminders of the attacks are everywhere: When we’re in impossibly stressful security lines at the airport. When politicians invoke the attacks in their speeches. Afghanistan. Iraq. Homeland Security. Gitmo. Abbottabad.
But a decade is a long time, and although the memories are still there, the pain and fear and rage and confusion have dulled in ways I didn’t think possible in the months following that day, when I lay on the floor of my University of Virginia dorm room, dialing my phone in vain, trying to get in touch with someone, anyone, who might tell me if my father, a dentist who worked at the clinic at the Pentagon, was OK.
My family wouldn’t hear from him until late that night, but at least we heard from him. He was fine — untouched physically, but different somehow, changed forever by what he had seen. He and the rest of the medical personnel in the building had been immediately dispatched to the crash site after the attack.
To this day, he doesn’t talk about what he saw or did. My sisters and mother and I wouldn’t find out how much he had helped victims and what devastation he witnessed until he and his co-workers were awarded medals of commendation by the Army at a ceremony several months later.
Life went on for him and for everyone else. The Pentagon was patched up, and Ground Zero was cleared of debris, but we didn’t forget. And I can’t be the only person who didn’t lose anyone and yet still couldn’t completely shake the terror I felt when I didn’t know my dad’s fate.
I was lucky to be one of the thousands who finally got that call from a loved one who had been on a plane or in a building or part of a firehouse. I felt relief but also a terrible sorrow for the people whose phones never rang with good news.
But as the wars waged to avenge the attacks dragged on and that post-9/11 “kumbaya” national togetherness gave way to the most politically divisive and ugly time my generation had witnessed, the actual attacks stopped weighing on me as much as what the attacks had wrought. Two terrible, never-ending wars. Torture. Profiling. Vicious partisanship. America ended up losing much more than the nearly 3,000 people who died at the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and that field in Pennsylvania.
Our country has been inexorably altered. Of course we’ll never forget. But memories of the way things were before 9/11? Those are fading fast.