After writing 5 different articles on the anniversaries of 9/11, I felt that I had said all that I could say about the event and my reactions to it. Hence, I repost what I consider one of the best pieces I have ever written - my remembrance from 9/11/2006.
As the years fly by, we are gradually starting to place 9/11 in context; carefully moving the memories of that horrible day into a corner of the mind where we can look at what it means more analytically, and with less emotion. This is good - and bad. It is good because you cannot move forward when the open wound of such a seismic event looms large in your conscious mind. But it is bad because we forget some of the details of that day that have forever changed us as a nation.
The falling towers, the smoldering Pentagon, and that hole in the empty field in Pennsylvania should never be forgotten, but as each year passes, the edges of those memories dissolve and blur into the background, salving the wounds we suffered that day while allowing us the luxury of wondering if we “overreacted” or if the cost of protecting ourselves from a repeat of 9/11 has been worth it.
Those are side issues. The importance of 9/11 will always be how it affected us personally. For some, the awareness raised by the attack caused a titanic shift in their politics, as some liberals were “mugged by reality.” Others went in the opposite direction. Personal politics aside, however you view the subsequent actions of the US government, you cannot argue that a sea change didn’t take place in our attitudes toward Muslims and the Muslim world.
The fact that these changes are still playing themselves out - that bigotry, as well as more complete efforts to understand the Muslim world walk hand in hand - can be seen in the mosque controversy and the latest effort to prove how spectacularly ignorant some Americans can be in wanting to burn the Koran. I think the efforts at understanding and tolerance are beginning to win out, but it will be years before history renders her verdict on that score.
It is true that 9/11 turned our politics upside down. It is also true that the farther away we move from that day, the less it matters. Other issues now engage us, and what was once thought vital to America is now seen as an afterthought. No more “War on Terror” or “Islamic extremists” - as if redefining the words used to describe that battle we are in makes a whit of difference. We will either fight the war or try to ignore it. Either way, we are likely to pay a price.
And someday, we will have another date to remember in the context of America being attacked by terrorists. And probably more after that. I wonder if they will matter as much to us as 9/11?
I hope I’m not here to find out.
This article originally appears in The American Thinker
On this 5th anniversary of the attacks on September 11, 2001, we Americans are engaged in the helpful process of taking stock, carefully toting up the pluses and minuses in our imaginary ledgers of where we are as a nation. Perhaps we even take some time to calculate the political cost/benefit ratio of how this particular anniversary will color the election in November. And if we’re in the mood, we may even listen to some of the testimonials given by politicians and read the editorials in the great newspapers that hearken to us a remembrance of the evil perpetrated against America on that day.
For myself as hard as I try to recapture the emotions that roared to the surface that day, bubbling up from a place I never knew existed - so raw, so real, so utterly bereft and the same time feeling a closeness with my fellow Americans I had never felt before - what I can no longer do is weep. I can no longer weep for the widows, the orphans, the brave and selfless first responders who charged up dozens of flights of stairs, giving their lives so that others could live. I can no longer weep for lives cut short, for loved ones whispering their tearful goodbyes on doomed airplanes, for heroic citizen-warriors who fought our first pitched battle in the skies over Pennsylvania (and won). And I can no longer weep for America with the realization that these attacks meant we were at war and that many a young American would lose their lives defending us.
It isn’t faulty memory that prevents the tears from coming. I remember September 11, 2001 clearly, as beautiful a day in the Midwest as it was in New York. I was on a short vacation and got up early as has always been my wont to watch a movie I had rented on the VCR. When the movie ended, I turned off the TV and puttered around the apartment for a while. I distinctly remember doing the dishes and cleaning the kitchen.
Thinking to catch some NFL previews for the coming week, I flipped on the TV and saw the smoking towers. It didn’t register at first. How could it? In the background, I could hear CNN droning on. Something about airplanes and terrorists.
It still didn’t register. And then, not 2 minutes after I had flipped on the TV, the first tower began to collapse. By this time I had begun to grasp what was happening and watched in absolute horror as the once proud symbol of America’s greatness was reduced to a smoking pile of rubble in just a few seconds. I stared and stared at the screen, barely aware in the background that someone was screaming. I was actually briefly annoyed. Can’t they move that person away from the microphone, I wondered.
It was then I realized that I was doing the screaming.
The tears flowed often that day. When the second tower collapsed, a sadness so profound, so beyond tears, engulfed me and I fell into a state of absolute numbness - a defense mechanism initiated by the brain I’m sure, protecting my psyche from being damaged by the overwhelming and powerful emotions engendered by watching my fellow citizens incinerated and crushed.
That feeling of not being able to feel was interrupted several times during the day. Some pictures showing the gaping hole in the Pentagon and the rescuers working frantically brought more tears as did some of the images of ordinary New Yorkers whose entire world came crashing down that day along with the towers. You just never knew when the tears would start to flow. The image of young girl in Pennsylvania laying a teddy bear at the instant memorial for flight 93 that had been started by nearby residents. Frantic people who had loved ones in the towers trying to get to lower Manhattan but being blocked because the danger was just too great. The still picture of a dead Father Judge, Chaplain to the Firefighters in the city, being carried away so gently.
What finally caused me to turn the coverage off for a while was when Members of Congress gathered on the steps of the Capitol and, following heartfelt speeches by the Speaker and Minority Leader, a lone voice in the back began to sing God Bless America. Totally unscripted and without precedent, several dozen Congressmen tearfully joined in. Veteran CNN correspondent Judy Woodruff, as tough and as professional as they come in the news business, nearly broke down on live TV describing it.
It was at that point that I wondered: Will we ever be happy again? Will we ever be able to laugh and dance and sing the joyous, confident notes that have marked the American people as the most dyed in the wool, overarching optimists the world has ever seen?
How can we look to the future when the gaping, oozing wound at Ground Zero reminds us that we are not invulnerable, that for all our military might, our economic power, our cultural dominance, our gigantic footprint on the modern world, America can be laid low by a bunch of fanatics?
The answers seemed not to be forthcoming on that day. But gradually, as our national leaders recovered their equilibrium and especially as President Bush seemed to find a purpose and direction for our emotions, we eased back into our daily routines, finding comfort and solace in the ordinary tasks and challenges that take up space in our lives, allowing us to find a haven from the winds of history that blew through New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania on that horrible day of blood and death and fire and smoke.
Every once and a while in the months that followed, we would receive a reminder that would bring those same emotions we felt on 9/11 to the surface. But a scab had formed over the wounds inflicted upon America that day and much of the power and grief we felt had faded like an old, weathered photograph gathering dust in the attic so that we could look 9/11 in the eye and not flinch. Yes, there were still moments of pathos and pain. I would tear up when the brave workers at Ground Zero would find the body of a firefighter or policeman and the sad, solemn procession carrying the remains to the waiting ambulance evoked memories of the cost of that day. But in retrospect, most of us were following the preparations for war and much of what we endured on 9/11 as a nation became simply part of the “mystic chords of memory” that bind all of us who lived through those awful hours.
When the first anniversary of the attacks came and went, it seemed proper that we should try our best to move on from the tragedy and get down to the business of fighting and winning the war. A people at war cannot afford powerful emotions. They must steel themselves against anything that can deflect them from the course that leads to victory. But after celebrating the vanquishing of the Taliban during the first anniversary and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq on the second, the date itself began to take on a new meaning. The third anniversary was unavoidably marked by politics as it occurred during the height of the Presidential election of 2004. Try as we might, it was difficult to summon the grief and the outrage that had marked the first two anniversaries. And last year’s memorial was extremely subdued, almost as if some wanted to forget the day altogether.
Through it all, the memory of the emotions that tore at the nation’s soul and caused an ocean of tears to flow receded slowly into the background, like a tidal wave that washes over a shoreline and, retreating slowly back into the sea, reveals a new landscape. We have barely explored this new world, many of us preferring the old one and finding comfort in the words of those who wish to pretend the catastrophe never happened. But while we may not be able to summon the demons that caused the anger, the sadness, and the tears 5 years ago, we should now be able to call forth the angels who can aid and protect us from our own folly; the fearful belief that the job is too big, too fraught with uncertainty for us to even try and win through to victory.
It is to this endeavor that we can rededicate ourselves on this 5th anniversary of 9/11. The tears may be gone, unable to bridge the mists of time and the healing salve of forgetfulness. But the cause remains. The purpose lives. And while our tears may have dried, the reason we wept in the first place will never, ever be forgotten.