I forgot to never forget 9-11

featureimage I woke up this morning eager to grab the most important news off my iPad — latest city election results. I found them and encountered no other headlines of interest to New Yorkers (except maybe the Yankees win).

The sidewalk was packed with workers and school kids on my short walk to the L train at 8AM. No police, no dogs, no nervous commuters. Everybody was mostly annoyed by the humidity and the fact that three trains went by before we could get on one. Union Square was just the same as I changed to the 5 train — completely mobbed. The only people hustling for attention were the AM New York town criers.

At Fulton Street, the crowd was like any other day. That held true until I rounded the corner on Vesey Street to a line a of news vans and reporters doing stand ups. One reporter jostled past me trying to grab two firemen; they refused an interview.

It was at this point it occurred to me, “I forgot that it’s September 11th.”

Waiting for the Live Shot
I studied and worked in post-conflict societies in the late-90s through the early-noughts. “Reconciliation” was the watchword for the international sector, but for those of us working directly with survivors, it was something else. What had come out of places like Rwanda and Bosnia where people who committed grave atrocities against each other still lived in close proximity was the idea not of forgetting, but “Things that don’t come to mind.”

That phrase rattled in my head as I stepped in the elevator and lightly mocked a Christine Quinn campaign staffer. For most people who live and work in New York, 9-11 has become something that “Doesn’t come to mind.”

The concept is not actually about forgetting, or forgiving. It was most accurately explained to me by a man in Mostar, Bosnia-Herzegovina who had seen his family brutally dragged away by his neighbor. Ultimately, those family members were killed.

He seethed with understandable rage and thoughts of revenge for years after the war. He would encounter the neighbor almost daily at the market or see him casually enjoying a coffee and smoke at a cafe. He began to pray, not for revenge, but the power to forgive. While he didn’t find that, he realized one day that the horror of the moment his family was taken simply did not come to mind. He counted and it had been two weeks and at least ten sightings of the man who stole away his family. He noticed him sitting smoking, picking a vegetable or simply strolling down the street. He noticed him and kept going about his own day, without flashing back and doubling-over in anger and grief.

I was in California when the Towers fell and I have never been one to go in for the 9-11 memorial economy. Still, I remember the smell of the burning buildings and the layers of dust blanketing a room at Pace University where I’d come - ironically - for a Peace Studies course a week after the attack. I remember getting absolutely sloshed at McSorely’s with a group of firefighters and cops from New York and around the world as they shared stories, tears and beers on the first anniversary.I remember the color-coded alerts, bag checks and people refusing to ride the subway on subsequent 9-11 anniversaries.

Today, as I write this I remember that Tuesday in 2001, but in all honesty, until this moment 9-11 was simply something that didn’t come to mind. I think that is a good thing.