Twenty years ago this particular September morning, I was taking my five-year-old to school, and half-listening as the KUPD "Morning Sickness" crew laughed about an undocumented immigrant man who was working in a bottling factory and lost his "pee-pee" after getting it stuck in a bottle. News of the Weird. And then they started talking about airplanes flying into the World Trade Center in New York, and I remember being disgusted enough to change the station. "That is just not funny," I might have said out loud.
I don't remember.
I do remember the horror of that day unfolding, and of the following weeks. My brother-in-law was an airman at McGuire Air Force Base at the time, and his unit went to the City to help during the emergency. We found out later that he was one of the people on the ground when the second tower fell, far enough away that he was able to cover his mouth and nose and direct people fleeing the area into a place with shelter. I had only been out of the Air Force for a few months myself, and I was cynically paying attention to what Defense Secretary Rumsfeld and Vice President Cheney were saying. Among all of the angry politicians speaking about a response, they were the ones who sounded gleeful to me. I remember Rumsfeld making statements tying Iraq's Saddam Hussein to the attacks early on - perhaps as early as September 15?
I don't recall.
I do recall being asked by a friend, "How could anyone hate America so much?" and being foolish enough to give her an answer. This was someone who had introduced herself to me by saying her name and these words: "I'm a conservative, and Democrats are e-vull!" in 1990. I should have known better. I should have mouthed some platitude or said "I don't know." Why did I tell her the truth?
I have no memory of anything at all.
But that's not true. I remember what I told her. I don't have the exact text, because I allowed that email account to lapse years ago, but it's basically the same answer I would give today if someone bothered to ask me. (That's probably why no one does ask.) I said:
"Why are you surprised? I just came back to the U.S. last year after spending three years in England. They're our very best friends, internationally, and they hate us! They think we're fat and obnoxious and using up all the oil. Most other countries think we take too much and control too much and use our wealth and power to get our way. We abuse the International institutions that we established, and use them to drive up all the prices, and drive down all the wages. We have a huge, insatiable domestic market for the drugs they can sell us, but we use that as an excuse to kill them in secret wars to keep them from making a living wage outside of our control. It's a wonder more people haven't attacked us before now."
She, of course, was horrified and said, "Why do you hate America?" We spoke less and less frequently during the Bush Administration.
So, yes, I remember the date. I remember the tragedy - and it was a tragedy. But I remember it as the beginning of my country turning away from the agreed-upon ideals that we had at least claimed to cherish since my grandparents' generation - of democracy, of trying to build a more just and more equitable society. That was when I remember thinking that I was seeing the seeds of a future America full of angry fascists being planted, that nothing good could come from the "with us or against us" mentality.
And I was right about that.
That particular friendship was broken after that conversation, but it died altogether in 2009 - after that friend went on Twitter to say that the Obamas deserved the guillotine, and I called her out for it. Her husband - an active duty NCO in the Army at the time - told me I was a douchecanoe and that his wife was the sweetest person in the world. I laughed at "douchecanoe" and pointed out that anyone calling for the guillotine of an elected U.S. official (his boss, no less) was probably disqualified from any "sweetest person" accolades.
I lost other friends along the way. One called me a traitor after the 2008 election when I told him who I had voted for. He died unexpectedly of a heart attack a couple of years later, without ever talking to me again. It happens, I guess.
And every year, starting about mid-August, those passive-aggressive "you said you'd never forget" memes start showing up. And I don't say anything, because I guess I learned something about being honest with people who are finally paying attention and questioning the "why" behind certain events. I don't say anything because what's the point?
I just scroll by, and wonder if there was ever anything I could have said that would have gotten through to them? I don't think so. I have tried to warn people. I can't prove it, but I'm pretty sure I told that ex-friend who died in 2012 that I was worried about his party electing a proto-fascist demagogue (I might have even used an extreme example of a certain corrupt NYC real estate mobster) and he laughed at me and said there were checks and balances to keep that from happening.
I know I cautioned people when Sarah Palin and her ilk started making sport of words like "empathy" that it was a bad look to turn positive human values into targets for derision, and I was told to lighten up and learn to take a joke. (Me. The guy who is never ever funny.) Of course, when I do joke, they don't seem to like that either.
So I keep my mouth shut and scroll on, never sure if the people posting the ugly memes are aware that they're targeting me...aware that I do remember, but that I remember it differently than they seem to do.
Or have they simply forgotten?