On September 11, 2001, the world fractured. It’s beyond my skill as a writer to capture that day, and the days that would follow — the planes, like specters, vanishing into steel and glass; the slow-motion cascade of the towers crumbling into themselves; the ash-covered figures wandering the streets; the anguish and the fear. Nor do I pretend to understand the stark nihilism that drove the terrorists that day and that drives their brethren still. My powers of empathy, my ability to reach into another’s heart, cannot penetrate the blank stares of those who would murder innocents with abstract, serene satisfaction.
— Barack Obama
Eight years is a long time to feel an impact from a major tragedy. As each year passes, we begin to move on, the horror of that fateful day long diluted by time and life as usual. It’s almost dehumanizing how the process works – it is only for that sudden moment of occurrence, followed by some lingering time after, that we truly feel anything for what happened that day. But pretty soon it becomes but a memory, a composite of images and words that we bring together to denote tragedy on a strictly analytical level. With the exception of those whose loved ones had died, we’ve largely forgotten.
Then again, we do live in a fast-paced world: most of us, save the loved ones of victims, have largely moved on. It’s neither unusual – nor offensive – for that terrible occurrence to be referenced in a casual conversation or even a joke. A once sobering, unspeakable tragedy is now largely a memory; still sad, but due more to obligation than any lingering sympathy.
How does one even begin to approach the discussion of any horrific and tragic event? Is there any effective way to capture the raw disorder and sadness that followed such a calamity as what transpired on September 11, 2001. This was once such an average day. Now, the seemingly innocuous combination of the numbers 9 and 11 invoke reflections of anger, tragedy, fear, and terror, albeit not as strong. One could utter them anywhere in the country, if not the world, and illicit a ubiquitous negative response.
Now the once unremarkable date of 9/11 is the 21st century’s answer to a day that would live in infamy, something for our generation to define itself by and to refer to with our children one day. It was, after all, the day that changed America and the world forever.
Of course one could argue that we have merely moved forward from darker times, following the course of time. After all, we should not allow ourselves to be held back in sorrow and anger forever. We must always remember the many heroes, average people like us, who died that day, and continue on with all of it in our memory. But there is sadly more to 9/11 than senseless death; many repercussions – and their lessons – remain to be learned. I recalled during a conference on American foreign policy a dictum on the event: it was not 9/11 itself that changed the world, but our reaction to it. If you think about it, none of the events that transpired after the war needed ever to have happened.
We did not have to forsake our civil liberties under an increasingly powerful executive branch. We did not have to support wars that to this day claim more blood – which many of us aren’t willing to spill ourselves – and remain a haunting legacy of that time. We did not have to succumb to the fear and paranoia that allowed those in power to exploit our rightful call to justice for their own selfish interests (for the record I had supported some sort of involvement in Afghanistan, given the linkage, but not it’s execution, which is another discussion altogether).
Perhaps most importantly, 9/11 became a significant but fleeting boost to our unity and sense of pride as a nation. There was immense good will and patriotism following that fateful event; people were even nicer to each other on the street. To think it took the loss 3,000 lives to get us to come together as a nation. It wasn’t long before we reverted back to the political deadlock and public polarization that continues to plague our progress today. Must we only come together in the face of certain doom? Or out of insecurity? Or worse still against a common external enemy, the only thing that seems to give a patriotic boost.
We allowed 9/11 to grip us in a state of victimization and panic that was naively complacent and came to be exploited by our then-leaders with horrific consequences – consequences that we and the world experience to this very day. So many Ivory Tower scholars sit and argue the points and particulars from years later…yet just as many voices of reason tried to invoke a better course then and there. In the end, a lot of us let ourselves go. Admittedly, it’s far easier to note these things retrospectively, and one could argue that, given the circumstances, our actions (and inactions) could not be helped.
True, but it doesn’t invalidate the lessons to be learned. With every crisis, even one as horrific as 9/11, comes opportunity. We can still learn from the repercussions of that auspicious event. We must not be blind to the world outside our own, which we had meddled in and provoked ghastly vengeance from in the form of 9/11. We cannot let ourselves fall into a cycle of revanchism that may entrench future generations – namely today’s and tomorrow’s youth – for generations. As a nation, we need to hold together, not due to tragic and terrible incidents like the attacks, but because we all have a stake in one another’s future as Americans. As we deal today with the current glut of crises that will likely effect us for years to come, the lessons of 9/11 – of composure and solidarity in the face of disaster, of loving our fellow Americans and working to compromise – ring as loudly as ever.
This is memory of all those average yet no less heroic Americans who died that day. In addition, it is in memory to the thousands more all over the world that have continued to die as a result of the consequences of the war.