Stephanie Willis

Sep 12, 2021

8 min read

Remembering 9/11

Some time in 2020, an older man asked me about my back tattoo in Home Depot. He wanted to know what was “it a picture of”. I tend to brush off questions that immediately begin with an oversimplification. I consider the design on my back to be art- art that I conceptualized and drew, and then engaged the services of several artists to bring to life. It includes many symbols that represent my overall philosophy on life, complete with images plucked from my favorite literary references. It takes a long time to actually explain- so I adjust the length of my story to suit what the situation calls for. I answered something like “It’s a lot of things.”

The man used his question as a segue to talk about his bicep tattoo of the Twin Towers burning. He implied a personal link to the tragedy. I asked with utmost sympathy, “Did you know someone that lost their life in the Towers?” He did not. His relation was that he knew a guy who sometimes worked in the Towers but wasn’t working there when this tragedy happened. He had been to New York once years and years before the attack for a very short period of time.

Everywhere I look today, I am seeing messages like “Never Forget”. But most of the people who are sending out these messages were 1) not even born in 2001, and/or 2) have no connection with the tragedy whatsoever, other than it was an American city, and “if you’re in this country, you better support America”. On the other 364 days of the year, Texans are actually supposed to hate New Yorkers. (e.g., Astros vs. Yankees; that salsa commercial that uses New York City as the punch line for The wrong place to get salsa from; Houston vs. Houston pronunciation; Southern manners vs. the truth… to your face; liberal vs. backwards as fuck- see recent abortion law fiasco).

I’ve heard an astonishing number of people talk about the tragedy of hearing about the event- going into detail about how it was so hard to see it on TV and you couldn’t possibly understand if you didn’t see it on TV on the evening news several hours after the actual attack. They have no interest in ever going to New York, and they hate New Yorkers (see above)- so there is no way that the person would even hear anecdotally about someone’s personal, private grief of losing a loved one on that day- and the simultaneous worry and hope that flooded their thoughts as they patiently awaited contact in the technology blackout over the 48 hour period after the attack.

I saw one post that was a repost of a misquote of the number who died- it said “2297” [sic]. But even so that is less than a half of a percent of the Americans who at this point have died from COVID in the last year and a half. Not that it’s a contest, but it’s so inconsistent. Some of the same people reminding you to remember refuse to wear a mask and get vaccinated. So they have a direct hand in contributing to these continuing deaths. What’s so much more valuable about the circa 3,000 that died in the World Trade Center to be continually remembered, while 650,000 are being forgotten and denied daily.

I remember the New York skyline with the towers. It was so iconic. The buildings completely defined the landscape any way you looked at Manhattan. You could see it from the plane as you were descending to land. Most of the people “remembering”, don’t remember that at all- because they never saw it in the first place, and never noticed the difference when the buildings were gone.

I visited NYC in the same fall of 9/11 getting information about schools. I moved there on my own 8 months after the event. One of my first stops in the city was Ground Zero. The mock funeral fence holding roses and pictures and candles was still surrounding the walkway at the church across the street. There was one tiny piece of building still upstanding. The rest was a huge deep gaping hole. It made me physically ill to look at the ash and dust in the hole thinking that it was all that remained of those who were in the building at the time and were unable to escape. That first anniversary New York was still grieving. “Where were you on 9/11?” was not a casual question. If you were involved in any real way, you didn’t like to talk about.

In early fall of 2002, I went to a play showcasing the stories of some of the victims. It started with parents watching their kids play and worrying about trivial things. At the end of the conversation we learn that it was a reenactment about parents leaving their kids at a daycare that was in the Towers. There were several other short scenes, and by the end of the show everyone was very much in tears. On the actual night of the first anniversary, I went to a candlelight vigil in the city. The names of each of the victims was read aloud and there were prayers of peace from every religious denomination. We walked the streets, and it seemed that the whole city was illuminated by candlelight and crying out.

I will remember this collective crying. I will remember the resiliency of New Yorkers on the actual day of 9/11. People rushed in to help with no thought of their own safety. Transit was shut down and everyone on the lower end of the island had to walk home uptown. Bodegas opened their doors- giving people shoes, water and other necessities for the walk. It didn’t matter what race you were, what language you spoke, what country you were originally from, how you dressed. There was such a sense of togetherness and determination to push forward amidst so much unexpected tragedy.

In our first year writing class later that fall, we had an assignment to write a proposal for how to redesign Ground Zero as a memorial. The kids on my floor discussed it, in a very heated college dorm manner. Everyone weighed in- the majority were not even in the writing class. It was important to all of us, so we all had opinions. Some said the land should be left unused or flat out of respect for the bodies of those that were unable to be laid properly to rest. Some thought the towers should be built back exactly as before the attack, as a visible representation of our resiliency. Others worried that anything too big might welcome another terrorist attack. I was advocating building one giant building- much taller than the original towers- so that it would look like one giant middle finger sticking into the sky for whoever want to fuck with New York again. And the first 20 floors would be an open air memorial to the lost. I thought it important you should pass through the memorial space before entering any other part of the building.

I moved back to Texas quite a while ago to be closer to family, but I always visit NYC every couple of years. To eat Italian food, go to Central Park, go to museums, go to theater, go to dance performances, listen to live jazz- the works. But all that while, I haven’t gone to see the monument that stands at the WTC site today- so I’m not sure how the space was actually planned. I still get emotional thinking about the site… and it makes me more emotional, but this time angry instead of sad, to think about the way that 9/11 has been commercialized, and the site turned into a tourist attraction.

Several people, who would have never made the effort to go to WTC before 9/11, are encouraging followers to go to the memorial and take pictures. Someone high up in an educational institution in Texas in a “teaching moment” to the college kiddos mentioned that 9/11 is the reason for airport security. They want to remember the commoditized version of 9/11 that promote decimation of the “others”- first “terrorists”, which soon became anyone Muslim, and later anyone poor from a “shithole country”, and has recently pivoted to the nebulous category of the Asians- all of them- who are solely responsible for the creation of COVID as a form of biological terrorism.

I will remember how 9/11 was used as the reason to invade Iraq. I will remember how I marched in the streets in NYC in what was at the time one of the biggest global protests. I still have my “No Blood for Oil” button. I will remember the police officers who laughed with us as we shouted “Dance for Peace” shaking down the street to a friend beating out the rhythm with drumsticks on a plastic pail. I will remember leading the chants to “What do we want?!” and “When do we want it?!”- the answers of course in this case were “peace” and “now” from the crowd.

I will remember how the death toll for those who were at Ground Zero is higher than 3,000 because of the people that have developed life-ending diseases subsequently as a result of inhaling toxic dust while trying to save others. I will remember their fight to understand their health issues with a general American public that believes universal healthcare coverage is a Commy trick.

I will remember the soldiers who lost their lives in Iraq and later Afghanistan. I will remember the soldiers who were not killed, but saw their fellow soldiers fall and now are back home suffering the effects of PTSD.

I will remember the Iraqi and Afghan people that were in no way connected to any terrorist operation who suffered to survive and raise children caught between the terrorist organizations and American occupying police who both became increasingly indiscriminately violent.

I will remember the Muslim Americans who were treated mercilessly simply because of their faith. I will remember people who knew literally nothing about the Qur’an teaching classes about how Muslim people are all in a hurry to get to heaven to meet a million virgins who they can rape as soon as they blow up a lot of Americans on earth. I heard Christians say that Islam specifically calls for violence, which is morally apprehensible and Satanic. The same Christians conveniently forget about all those chapters in the Bible about God’s warriors, putting on the armor of Christ, and the entire history of the Crusades and hundreds of years of Holy Wars.

I will remember how 9/11 is now erroneously cited as a cause for the security measures we have in the world today. Airport security was heightened much more after the plane hijackings in the 1970s. 9/11was not the first international incident of a plane hijacking that led to civilian deaths.

9/11 was not even the first attempt by terrorists to demolish the Twin Towers. Someone failed years earlier driving a bomb in a van into the bottom parking garage. The Towers were a constant terrorist target since the 1980s, because it was seen as a symbol of American commerce and way of life to those that hated American greed.

Those responsible for the acts of 9/11 were not the first terrorists who got training by Americans/on American soil. US armed forces have been training terrorist operatives throughout Latin America and Africa since the 1950s.

I will remember that the total number of people killed by domestic terrorists in America is much higher than that of international terrorists, and domestic terrorism is much more common that international terrorism in every period throughout US history.

I remember the videos I saw of the nuclear bomb drills held regularly in elementary schools during the dawn of the nuclear age, and I remember that 9/11 was not the first time that America felt threatened in the last century by a longshot. I remember reading about the very real threat of nuclear global annihilation that was just narrowly avoided in the Cuban Missile Crisis in the 1960s.

This “Never Forget” that everyone else is talking about today is much worse than forgetting. It’s reinvention of tragedy in order to create a restrictive national identity that suits the needs of the power hungry and discourages critical thinking. It minimizes the true tragedy and is a rallying cry for hate. PSA: Please use your brain when you remember.