Dole on the scars of 9/11

Originally published in the Newark Advocate on 8/26/11:

Remember those unifying days after Sept. 11, 2001? Those times demanded a rallying cry, and we all urged our future selves to “Never Forget.”

I attended a candlelight vigil that week in a small town similar to Newark or Granville. People of all ages, political and socio-economic backgrounds gathered together in an effort to make sense of what had happened. Taking the candle home that evening, I etched “Never Forget 9/11/01” in the wax.

To this day, I have it on a shelf where I see it every day.

Looking back, however, I find myself asking: “Never Forget” — how could I? 

The continuing impact of the 9/11 attacks is like a tree with barbed wire seemingly growing from its trunk.

It’s not an optical illusion.

In time, a tree growing near the barbed wire will overtake it; the wire will pierce the bark and cut into the tree. But the tree will keep right on living, enveloping the barbed wire. Each passing year means another ring in the trunk and the barbed wire becomes an even more permanent part of the tree.

The barbaric act of terrorism cut deeply into our country’s soul. It hurt, and it changed us. But we’ve kept on living, enveloping the raw emotions of that day. And the sad reality that we lost 2,996 mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, brothers and sisters that day has become an everlasting part of our national psyche.

Dedicated to the “Never Forget” mantra, I forced myself to watch the documentaries and news footage annually those first few years. I have a VHS tape full of live news coverage that I recorded that day. It ends with the emotionally spontaneous singing of “God Bless America” by members of Congress who were hoping to show the world, and any still-would-be terrorists, that our spirit was not broken.

But it turns out I didn’t need to watch those documentaries. I didn’t need to remind myself to “Never Forget.” It’s a sad fact that all the images — all the horror — are etched in my memory like those words carved in the candle.

Armed with a history degree, I strive to look at history with an emotional detachment, but I can’t do that with Sept. 11. That day isn’t remembered — it’s relived. Relived through the same thoughts, concerns and anger I felt watching the event unfold 10 years ago. 

Seeing footage of the second airplane hitting the twin towers causes the same electrical jolt through my brain that it did that day — a stark reminder of just how inconceivable the violent attacks were. I’m still trying to wrap my brain around the how and the why.

Remember the first tower collapsing? Even the news people struggled with the severity of what they were seeing. Watching it through the television set, I saw the collapse in its massive entirety, but the network anchors wrestled with it — “a portion collapsed?” “No?” “The whole thing?” “The entire tower is gone?” It’s as shocking today as it was then. 

Then there’s the footage of people jumping out of the towers. That’s where I have to draw the emotional line, even now.

As a youngster, I remember trying to tackle the premise of “eternity.” I tried to grasp what “forever” meant. I couldn’t do it — this idea that we’re only alive for, say, 100 years, and then we’re dead forever was too deep a notion for a preteen. A terrible feeling would rush over me, and I’d quickly turn my attention to less ponderous subjects.

I get the same feeling in the pit of my stomach now, thinking about the people jumping out of those buildings. How can jumping out of an 80th floor window be the best option? I just can’t comprehend it, and I can’t watch that footage.

The memories still are fresh and still haunting. While I think we, as a nation, needed that rallying cry then, it seems that forgetting is one of the lesser threats we’ve faced since Sept. 11.

There’s an English proverb that says, “Time heals all wounds.” Hundreds of years after that proverb first appeared, and 10 years after Sept. 11, some clarification is needed.

Notice, for instance, it doesn’t say how much time will heal the wounds.

Notice, also, that the proverb doesn’t give an antidote for healing memories.

And what the author clearly forgot to mention is this: Healed or not, like barbed wire running through a tree, the scar always will remain.

Matt Dole is a communications consultant living in Granville, OH.