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Always remember to never forget

Observer Viewpoint | Thursday, August 31, 2006

We must “never forget.”

On the list of the most clichéd phrases in America, it is right up there with “Hang in there” and “Cut to the chase.”

Parting lovers love to use it. “I will never forget you,” they whisper as tears cascade down their cheeks.

Others opt for the positive spin. These folks declare, “I will always remember you.” This phrase surged in popularity about eight years ago after the release of Sarah McLaughlin’s hit song, “I Will Remember You.” After all, the song seemed to surface during every emotional moment on every TV show on air. It even became my eighth grade class’ graduation anthem. Each time it played at a middle school dance, my classmates and I would sway back and forth, linked arm-in-arm. We pledged – not surprisingly – to always remember one another.

But the never forget/always remember sentiment is not only used for personal events; it is summoned for national events as well. Pearl Harbor, the Holocaust and even the Challenger explosion were all events that the 20th century repeatedly reminded us never to forget.

Then a new century dawned, and a mere year and a half into it, al Qaeda terrorists took down the Twin Towers, thereby giving rise to the first event that the 21st century would demand that we never forget.

Then the phrase was not only clichéd, but also politicized.

Conservatives led the “never forget” charge. They declared that we must always remember how “evildoers” killed thousands of innocent civilians – and on American soil to boot. They said that we must always remember that it was to avenge these deaths that thousands of American troops were shipped overseas. They urged us to never forget that the fight cannot be stopped until it is won.

Then just shy of four years later, the non-evildoer-caused disaster (although Al Gore refuted that idea in his film “An Inconvenient Truth,” as he asserted that increased carbon dioxide emissions were responsible for the deadly 2005 hurricane season, and thus many of us are in fact disaster-causing “evildoers” by continuing to drive our gas-guzzling sport utility vehicles) known as Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast, wreaking havoc upon thousands more American lives.

Liberal politicians, this time, carried the “always remember” banner. They argued that we must never forget how, in the wake of the tragedy, the government left thousands of Lower Ninth Ward African Americans out to dry. They claimed that we must always remember FEMA’s failures, and that we must not forget to fight for domestic changes.

But in a sense, those are not the most important reasons why we should remember Hurricane Katrina. The most important reasons are those that every human – regardless of political affiliation – can grasp. The most important reasons are the ones that unite us as a nation and as a human race.

I’ll cut to the chase – Life is fragile. Life is precious. And there are some darn good people in this world. Both Sept. 11 and Hurricane Katrina showed us this.

On Sept. 11, thousands of so-called “average Americans” poured into blood banks around the country, offering a piece of themselves in the hope of saving others. Last August, countless people in the Houston area and around the country opened their homes to Katrina refugees. Others came to New Orleans equipped with canoes to rescue those left behind.

As a result of these tragedies, we cried for people whom we had never met before and then when we saw those we knew and loved (those to whom we could say “I will always remember you” and truly mean it), we hugged them a little tighter, respected them a little more.

In his voice-over at the end of the film “World Trade Center”, Nicholas Cage’s character says, “9/11 showed us what humans are capable of, the evil, yeah sure, but it also brought out a goodness that we forgot could exist… It’s important for us to talk about that good, to remember.”

But now we don’t always talk about it. Perhaps Sarah McLaughlin sang it best. “It’s funny how we feel so much, but cannot say a word.”

Five years after Sept. 11 and one year after Hurricane Katrina, we need to keep feeling it. And we need to talk about it. Otherwise, we’ll be left like a brokenhearted lover, whimpering, “I’ll never forget you,” when there were so many other things that could have been said.

Over and over, we say that we will never forget. We toss the phrase out there like beads in a Mardi Gras parade. But if we only remember the tragedies as a means of spurring political action, are we really remembering them?

Liz Coffey is a senior American Studies major and Journalism, Ethics and Democracy minor. Her column appears every other Thursday. She can be reached at [email protected]

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.