Sunday, September 12, 2004

9/11: Remembrances and Reflections

When I was growing up, I always had a weird sort of envy for the people who were alive during John F. Kennedy’s assassination. It’s not that I envied the fact that they were alive to remember it but, rather, it was the sense of automatic commonality that they could establish between one another with the simple phrase “Where were you when it happened?”

My generation didn’t have anything like that. When the Challenger blew up, I thought that that might be such an event, but even though most people recall it, it never developed that near sacred sense of reminiscence that the JFK assassination achieved. It wasn’t until September 11th, 2001 that we finally had an event that etched itself so thoroughly into our memories. Now I understand that curious inflection that people get when they talk about where they were during the Kennedy assassination. I understand what it means for a nation to share a tragedy.

As I write this, I have to ask myself if there’s anything that I could possibly say about 9/11 that hasn’t already been said before by other, better writers than I? The truthful answer is that I probably can’t. As such, isn’t in an act of folly to try to add my own thoughts? Perhaps, but I think that it is important for everyone in my country to seriously think about what happened. In my case, I find that writing about a topic helps me to clarify my own thoughts on the subject.

I suppose that the best place to start is remembrance. Where was I when it happened?

I live two time zones to the west of New York City. By the time I woke up and had left for work, the events of the day were all well under way, but I was entirely oblivious of them. On that day, I decided to listen to NPR while driving to work. The very first inkling I had that anything was wrong were vague reports of fires in Washington DC and something about a plane that had crashed into the World Trade Center.

I honestly didn’t know what to make of what I was hearing. I assumed that the plane was something small, like a Cessna and the reports from Washington made me wonder if there was some sort of civil unrest going on. That, alone, should have focused my attention but I was feeling tired, that morning, and wasn’t paying too much attention to the radio. It wasn’t until I was nearly at work that I heard them say that one of the towers had fallen. It was at that point, driving into the parking lot, that I first knew that something truly serious had happened.

When I got to my desk, I tried to get into the internet, but all the sites I tried to reach were timing out. That, alone, told me that something significant had happened. There was definitely a lot of office buzz. The basic shape of the crisis was apparent and the word “terrorists” was being thrown around a lot. There were still quite a few gaps, though. I didn’t have any idea what was going on in Washington DC. The rumors ran the span from helicopters to bombs. After about an hour, someone set up a TV in a side room. Every ten minutes our so I’d go in and spend time looking at the news. This was when I first saw the images of the actual crashes.

I want to say that, by this point, I was shocked, outraged and saddened. The truth is that I just couldn’t assimilate it. Someone else in the room said what everyone was thinking, “It looks like special effects.”

He was right. The explosions didn’t look real. They looked like something out of Hollywood. It was like seeing a disaster-of-the-week TV movie. It didn’t make any sense that what I was seeing with my eyes had happened to flesh and blood human beings. Intellectually, of course, I understood this and it bothered me that I didn’t feel something more, especially since I had friends in Washington DC who could have, conceivably, been part of what was going on. My emotions refused to agree. I can’t even say that I was feeling numb. There was simply a profound sense of disconnection between myself and the reality of the situation.

It was the firefighters that finally made it real, for me. When I heard about whole companies of firemen being lost when the towers fell, that somehow broke through the feeling that none of this was actually happening. The loss of so many people, whose only goal was to save their fellow human beings from peril, was simply too awful to be anything less than entirely real.

We've all seen the images: the people leaping to their deaths, the falling towers, the burning wreckage, the grim faced rescue workers hoping against hope that someone could have possibly survived that nightmare. Over the following week, I did little more than to go to work and come home to watch television. Like many people, I donated as much as I could afford to helping the victims, but nothing could dispel the sense of futility and anger that was inside me.

One of the many things that came out of 9/11 was a phrase that quickly became a cliché. The phrase had many variations but it always took the form of "If X, then the terrorists will have won."

X could represent the assertion that if we didn't keep flying, or if we didn't go to New York City for our vacations, or if the stock market didn't go up when the markets reopened, and any number of other assertions. On the face of it, most of these contentions were ludicrous. I doubt, for instance, that the central goal of Al Qaeda was to impact the bottom line of Broadway productions. Never the less, there was a common sentiment expressed beneath all of these superficially trite expression: if the terrorists have made us afraid, then they've won. After all, that's what terrorists do — they spread fear.

Fortunately, this sentiment was in error. I say that this is fortunate because the simple and uncomfortable fact of the matter is that they did frighten us. It was fear of terrorism that drove us to pass The Patriot Act. It was fear of terrorist that caused us to ban tweezers and nail files from flights. It was fear of terrorism that ultimately allowed the administration to justify the invasion of Iraq with the specter of weapons of mass destruction. Even the thousands of flags that sprouted overnight were, in retrospect, talismans that we clutched in order to ward away that sense of dread and vulnerability that followed that evil day.

We are not a nation that is easy to shock. September 11 was not the first act of terrorism on US soil, nor was it the first attack by foreign agents, nor even was it the first attack against the World Trade Center by agents of Al Qaeda. Every act before it, however, was small enough for us to absorb into our collective psyches without causing undue disruption to our society. Even the horrific bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah federal building in Oklahoma City didn't impact us to a fraction of the degree that 9/11 did. The attacks of 9/11 crossed a threshold. For the first time in a long, long time, our sense of security and safety evaporated.

It was an event on par with Pearl Harbor, except that this time we have an enemy that isn't going to stand in the open and fight us directly. The very fact that they struck from the shadows using our own technologies against us, that they struck with civilians at civilians, was uncanny and unnerving. The packets of anthrax that flew through our mail system in the weeks afterwards proved, once and for all, that no one, anywhere, could consider themselves safe from attack.

They did cause us to be afraid, but I don't believe that they have won. The error in the sentiment is the supposition that terror wasn't merely their method but that it was their goal. We Americans have a hard time thinking about terrorism in general and Al Qaeda in particular. The notion that terrorists are motivated by political, religious and cultural concerns seems, to us, to be perilously close to an act of legitimizing them. It is easier to believe that the only reason that they did this was because they were evil. The fear is that if we grant that they had reasons to do what they did, we might have to excuse or mitigate the terrorists from blame.

This is, of course, nonsense. When we investigate ordinary acts of murder, one of the things we always try to determine is what motivated the murder. Understand why one person murdered another does not, in any way, sanction the act, nor does understanding grant any sanction to acts of mass murder. The masterminds behind the attacks didn't just wake up and decide to use airliners as missiles on a whim. They had specific goals they hoped to accomplish. Terror was the means but it was not the end. It is only by understanding those goals that we can hope to thwart them. It is only by understanding our enemies, no matter how repugnant of an act that is, that we can hope to defeat them. This is a basic principle that is, never the less, difficult for many people to accept.

It is three years later and life has started to return to normal. People are flying once again and is anyone is afraid of going to New York it is most likely fear of muggers and not of terrorists. Normalcy is indeed, slowly, making a return but the reverberations of 9/11 are still being felt. We have occupied two countries (justifiably or not) as a direct consequence of 9/11 and the images of that day are going to play a factor in the upcoming presidential elections (for good or ill). Al Qaeda has been hampered but not destroyed and Osama Bin Ladin is still on the run.

We are a changed country. Many of the changes, frankly, concern me. Never the less, we have not disintegrated, nor have the terrorists achieved their objectives. The biggest change to my country is that we now understand, in hearts and our minds, that there are people who hate us, who pray for our destructions, and who are willing to die in order to cause us harm. It is a bitter and painful realization, a realization that will shape us in this new century. I believe that 9/11 represents a supreme challenge for us. We must contend with the realities of a hostile world were many people consider us to be an evil that must be defeated.

We must face that challenge while, never the less, maintaining sight of the principles and ideals that define the United States. It is a challenge that has taken form at Abu Ghraib, at Guantanamo Bay, in the House of Representatives and the Senate and, ultimately, in the chambers of the Supreme Court. Sometimes I am worried that we may, indeed, be willing to sacrifice our identity for the sake of fear and I wonder if the terrorist might, after all, defeat us by turning us into something which we are not. During such times, I take solice in the memory of the millions of people who immediately went out to donate blood, money and time for the sake of strangers that they would never meet. September 11 did effect us. It frightened us and caused us to go just a little crazy because of that. Never the less, I think that beneath our fears lies a core of courage and a sense of principle that will, in the long run, carry us through to a day where we will become a nation that learned many sad lessons but which will, hopefully, have become wiser in the process.

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