On September 11, I logged into Facebook and found myself scrolling past a minefield of 9/11-themed posts. I bristled each time I saw “never forget,” that war cry without an exit plan. I hated that this national tragedy had come to be an excuse for revenge, and was frightened by how nationalism has hijacked patriotism.
I imagine you could fashion a rosary of human tragedies and pray to each and every one: white for hissing holocaust gas, gangrene green for Civil War, red for World War II kamikaze headbands, and black for the smoke pouring off the World Trade Centers.
My aunt could see the Manhattan death plumes from New Jersey that day in 2001. She stared out her window through the trees, pacing, and taking short sips of air. She thought about her sons at work in the city, willing her beige wall phone to ring, longing to hear, “Mom? We’re both okay.”
She paced with a legion of other families while mayhem reigned at ground zero: rescue teams beyond exhaustion, stunned survivors, agitated newscasters. So many choking on the news, unable to swallow, only the dead at rest.
Bob’s co-worker at the Kaho’olawe Island Reserve Commission called before dawn; her voice pitched half an octave high. “Turn on your TV!” I climbed out of bed and was walking the floor in our little stick house, eyes squinting. What? Of course, we didn’t have a television. We had shed the TV on our way to Belize five years earlier.
We packed a light bag and drove down the volcano, hoping the inter-island puddle jumpers planned on flying anyway so that Bob could attend a native plant conference on Molokai. I brought my fencing tool, thinking that if we found ourselves in an end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it scenario, I might want to cut through some barbed wire.
“Even if we had a TV,” Bob said, “I don’t think I would have turned it on.” I agreed. Neither of us cared to have another catastrophe etched into our retinas. We already had unshakable images of the exploding Challenger and John F. Kennedy’s last moments.
The airports, all the airports, were closed and the skies were blessedly silent for days. Not even the volcano tour helicopters broke the calm. My father told me later on the phone, “I held my breath for a couple of days, hoping they’d do the right thing.”
A sense of peace becalmed the Pacific, petty squabbles abandoned, stranded tourists embraced. We felt lucky to be alive, all of us grieving for the people digging through the rubble 4,900 miles east. For two days, the entire nation was grounded and unified.
And then the skies roared back to life.
A year later Congress gave the president authorization to use military force against Iraq and within five months peace was destroyed by the ink of an angry pen. Our disappointment was so profound that we quit our jobs and moved to a tiny island off the coast of Nicaragua, a place without an airstrip, roads, motorized vehicles, or even a proper dock. We met the big cargo ship at the reef when it arrived with diesel fuel, and watched the crew pitch 55-gallon drums overboard for us to lash to our boat. I remember hearing the drone of a propeller plane only once and rushing out from under the coconut palms to stare.
We lived in Nicaragua just long enough to notice a cultural shift upon re-entry. The first time a grocery store clerk said, “Have a safe day,” instead of “Have a great day,” I thought I’d misheard. The second time I chuckled, wondering, Safe from what? I began rolling my eyes at every well-meaning, “Be safe!” “Stay safe!” “Drive safe!” and “Safe travels!” I wasn’t a fan of this new fear-based vocabulary.
Then I started seeing “Never Forget” bumper stickers. More salt in the wound. For all of us who had fervently hoped for peace, “Never forget,” sounded exactly like, “Never forgive.” I began to lose heart. The United States had hijacked an unforgettable tragedy and was using it as an excuse to perpetuate death and destruction.
Had my cousins died that day, I would mourn them as I grieved for all the other lives. And I would resent, even more, the overlay of nationalism and military might that seeks to blur our grief into hate and revenge. What could have been a pulling together became an excuse to kill. Two thousand nine hundred ninety-six souls sacrificed so we could take more lives. Their heartbeats immortalized in the beat of our war drums.