I don’t talk about my “day job” online very much, and for good reason. I consider my online presence (which mostly exists to promote the comic) separate from my professional life, and vice versa. Oh, there’s the occasional moment when the comic gets mentioned in the presence of a coworker and I get to talk about my “over-glorified hobby”, mostly when I get to apply something I’ve learned while working on it to my current job assignment. There’s also the occasional GPF story loosely inspired by real-life workplace events, although those tend to be heavily edited to protect the guilty. Beyond these exceptions, I tend to never let the two cross paths. I don’t want my online activities to be misconstrued as endorsement, criticism, or being a spokesperson for my employer, nor do I want the comic and all its ancillary media to be a hindrance to my professional career.
Today, however, is a day that’s difficult to separate the two. Today, of course, is the fourteenth anniversary of the September 11, 2001 attacks.
I’m sure there are many people who have much to say about this topic, many who are far more eloquent than I and who have many deep and personal feelings attached to these events. There are also those who, as I’ve already seen several places online, are sick and tired of hearing about it and who just want to “move on”. While I’ve seen a fair number of “#NeverForget” hashtags cropping up across social media, I’m surprised I haven’t seen nearly as many “#JustMoveOnAlready” tags. Whether it’s fatigue, apathy, or something else, I cannot say, nor is it my place to judge anyone. But the more I’ve read online today, the deeper impression I get that some people just want to “get this over with”, to make the mean ol’ specter of 9/11 go away. We’ve shed our tears; it’s time to let the past be the past and forget about it.
Sadly, there are many people out there for which forgetting is not an option. While I have been blessed not to have been personally impacted by the events of 9/11—I was not personally injured, nor were any of my friends or loved ones directly impacted—there are thousands of people in the United States and throughout the world for whom 9/11 never ended. There are thousands of people who will be impacted every day, for the rest of their natural lives, simply because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time.
I deal with the aftermath of 9/11 every day. For that matter, my day job wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for 9/11. That may sound weird if you know what I do for a living. I’m a professional software developer, specializing in Web-based database applications. I manipulate bits, tiny electron charges stored on spinning magnetic plates that get tweaked and sorted based on electrical impulses traveling over networking cables. How does an event that took place fourteen years ago, hundreds of miles away, impact me? Because the bits I tweak on those spinning disks belong to the health records of people directly impacted by 9/11. These are people who are living with chronic illnesses, psychological trauma, and deadly cancers, not because of war, abuse, self-inflicted poor habits like smoking, or other causes. No, they were the “first responders”, the fire fighters, police officers, ambulance workers, and other emergency personnel who responded when duty demanded it. They were simply going to work, doing their jobs, and saving other people’s lives when planes began smashing into buildings, causing them to topple onto their heads.
It’s easy to form a cold detachment to all this. I sit here at my desk, in my moderately comfortable chair with three monitors in front of me, writing database stored procedures and Web site code as I sip my coffee and chat casually with my coworkers. The bits in that database could have easily been financial data for some bank, or a complex graph of friend relationships behind some social media site. Bits are bits, after all. Ones and zeroes, on and off. It’s only because we arbitrarily assign a meaning to a string of bits that they begin to take shape into something significant, like a dollar amount, a name, or a date. A name could belong to a user account, or to a customer’s credit card. It could mean anything. Bits are bits.
In my database, however, the database I touch every day, that name may belong to a woman in a hospital somewhere in New York. I have never met her, and I probably never will. I can see her name, her date of birth, and a series of arcane codes that stand for diagnoses and procedures. I may never bother translating those codes into human-readable descriptions; that, after all, isn’t part of my job. I’m just here to move data along, to pass it from Point A to Point B to Point C, so someone waiting to get paid for services rendered finally gets the money they requested from whomever they requested it from. If I did bother to look up that diagnosis code, however, I might see that she has lung cancer and is in desperate need for a lung transplant. I don’t know how she got lung cancer; I have no idea if she ever smoked in her life, or if she was plagued with secondhand smoke from a chain-smoking loved one. But that probably isn’t the case.
If she’s in my database, it’s because she was a police officer and, on the morning of September 11, 2001, she was jogging in downtown Manhattan, trying to get some exercise in before clocking on duty. She may have been relatively healthy and trying to maintain her fitness, or she may have been working hard to lose that “baby fat” from a recent pregnancy. It doesn’t matter. Because at 8:46am, a jet liner slammed into a tall building just a few blocks away from her, kicking off a chain reaction that eventually led to its collapse. Being a first responder, she immediately leaped into action, working with her on-duty colleagues to perform crowd control and get civilians to safety. When the buildings collapsed, she was fortunate not to be caught by the wreckage; some of her colleagues weren’t so lucky. Ignoring the choking debris saturating her lungs, she dove into fray, working with other police officers, fire fighters, paramedics, and other first responders to pull as many people from the rubble as possible. She worked for hours, doing what she could, until exhaustion set it and she was forced to rest. Periodically coughing due to the dust and debris in her lungs and haunted by the sight of mangled and burned bodies, she could not sleep. She returned to the relief effort as soon as she was able, refusing to give up until ordered by her superior officer. As days passed and the nightmare slowly began to fade, she did her best to continue her job. But all around her was the appalling, grizzly evidence of innocent people she was powerless to save.
Weeks passed, then months, then years, but the coughing didn’t stop. She went to her doctor, who asked the usual questions. Do you smoke? Have you ever smoked? Do you have a family history of asthma, chronic bronchitis, or other respiratory issues? They performed a series of tests only to discover that she now has lung cancer. The asbestos and other material released into the air by the collapsing buildings became lodged in her lungs, unable to escape. This mutated the lung cells adjacent to them, causing them to become malignant. The cancer is spreading, slowly and relentlessly. There is too much to be simply removed. Her only hope is a full lung transplant. There are a few things her doctors can do to ease her pain and make her more comfortable, but not much. She goes on a waiting list that is frighteningly long, so long that her odds of receiving the transplant before it’s too late are small. Now all she can do is wait, taking each breath one at a time, as her husband and children hope and pray for just one more day with her. All because she tried to help. All because she wanted to save lives and protect others. All because she was doing her job.
But why should I care? They’re just bits in a database, after all.
9/11 is a complex topic. There are many factors which contributed to its genesis, including interweaving historical, political, and religious influences. Many things have been said about whether or not it could have been avoided, and one could easily become hopelessly mired in such an analysis. Its aftermath is, understandably, equally controversial. There have been many things said and done in the past fourteen years that will have ramifications for years, if not centuries, to come. I do not feel compelled, nor do I feel qualified, nor do I want to debate these issues, and they are not the focus of this post. The world is a different place in the wake of 9/11; whether that will be for good or for ill is something later generations will have to decide.
My concern is apathy. The sense I’ve perceived from some online today isn’t about “moving on”, but more like “will you just shut up about it so I can forget about it?” Moving on and apathy are not the same thing. It’s healthy to move on after a traumatic event; the final of the five stages of grief is acceptance, after all, which implies that the one grieving has come to terms with their loss and moves on with their life. But acceptance is not the same thing as forgetting. I’ve lost a number of loved ones over my four plus decades on this Earth and I’ve come to accept their loss, but I’m not about to forget them. Forgetting is about apathy. Forgetting is not caring. Forgetting is about plugging your fingers in your ears and singing loudly, hoping the bad thing gives up and goes away. If we are apathetic about 9/11, if we chose to forget it, we are still in the first stage of grief—denial, not acceptance. 9/11 isn’t going away, and it never will, and it’s important that we don’t forget it. As George Santayana once wrote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” If we forget whatever lessons we learned from 9/11, its genesis, and its aftermath, we are simply inviting it to happen again… and again… and again.
I can understand the desire of some who were not personally affected by 9/11 to want to sweep it under the rug and pretend it never happened. I feel that desire myself at times, and it’s a very easy and seductive thing to do. It’s also easy for me to play with my little database, optimizing indexes and tuning queries, pretending those bits are something that they aren’t. After all, it’s just a job, and it doesn’t directly affect me, except for the pay check. Why should I care? But while my job can be frustrating at times—OK, most of the time—I know that most days I can go home and spend time with my family or lose myself in the latest exploits of Nick, Ki, Fooker, and the gang. For the people represented in my database, that isn’t an option. I try to remind myself periodically that there’s something deeper about what I do when I sit at this desk. That police officer waiting on a lung transplant will never know who I am and will likely never know what infinitesimal part I played in helping her. But I am helping her. I may not have been beside her when she rescued a trapped child, but I’m helping her nonetheless. And I do that every day, from 8am to 5pm (and occasionally nights and weekends if I have to do an off-hours deployment). I don’t know how long I’ll have this job but, even if I quit today, I hope—I know—I’ve helped someone through it. It’s not much, but maybe, just maybe, it’s just enough.
9/11 showed the world not only the horrible depths of depravity that humanity has to offer, but also some of its deepest strength. It showed us that some people in this world are willing to slaughter innocent lives to make their message heard, but it also showed us that some people are willing to sacrifice their own lives to protect the innocent. I may never be in the position those first responders were, where I would have to choose between my life and saving the life of someone I may never know. But that doesn’t mean I can’t do what I can to help these men and women for whom 9/11 will never end. No matter how small that part may be, at least it’s something.
That’s why I promise to #NeverForget. And no matter what your political, national, or religious stance is, I hope you never will either.