“You’ll always remember this day” was what my geography teacher explained to me on the morning of September 11, 2001. She went on to compare it to a day she remembered vividly. The JFK assassination. She couldn’t have been more correct. Twenty years later and practically every instant of that day, and the days that followed, is etched into my permanent memory.
How do you write about something so profound? How do you put all of the events that followed into perspective? The impact was tremendous. Here we are, twenty years removed from that day, and we’re still dealing with fallout.
It’s important to not get bogged down in the trenches. We could focus on the recent disaster that was the Afghanistan pullout. But, that moment, while it may be key to defining the next couple of years, hardly defines the prior twenty.
We could talk about all the bad things that came from the day. The heinous actions committed by few in our own military during the wars, and our CIA’s attempt at covering it up. Torture and water boarding. We could focus on the poor intelligence that sent us into Iraq searching for WMDs we never found. We could talk about the countless veterans we lost, and those who still struggle with mental ailments like PTSD, or those who battle lifelong physical ailments from our wars.
We could talk about all the good that came from that day. The feeling we felt when we saw the statue of Saddam Hussein fall in Baghdad, and the relief when Bush told us he was gone for good. The joy we collectively felt when Obama came on TV to tell us bin Laden was dead. The feeling of patriotism soon after the towers fell. The flags flying that made us proud to be an American. The unity we all shared. The togetherness.
We could focus exclusively on the stories of heroism that took place on the actual day. “Let’s roll” from those brave souls that took down United 93. The man with the red bandana who helped those exit the World Trade Center. The men and women who helped save those trapped in the destruction who never came home that day.
We could also highlight the transformative changes we experienced as Americans. We willingly sacrificed liberties for enhanced security. The Patriot Act, while sounding good at the time, brought about an expansion of domestic surveillance that few saw coming. The creation of our Department of Homeland Security and the TSA brought about countless, permanent changes to travel. These government intrusions can be looked as half empty. But, one can look at them half full. After all, we have had minimal terror attacks from abroad on American soil in twenty years.
Generationally, twenty years means a lot. A huge chunk of Americans are not with us today who were with us on 9/11. And, a lot more have been born since, or have come of age and are now mature enough to begin to understand this event. It means that we as Americans have a job to do. Not only are we to never forget, but we must also teach those around us about the day, and the events that followed. Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.
America today is going through another crisis that likely impacts us all in ways 9/11 did. A commentator said early into Covid that we are experiencing mini 9/11s daily. Now, this comment was slammed as being insensitive, but if you can take the emotion out of the comparison, is he wrong? Sure, we don’t have the shock and awe instant feeling we did on 9/11, but just imagine if Covid killed those we lost so far all in a flash the way those on 9/11 were killed. Let that sink in. And, what if all the rules, changes, and procedures we’ve implemented the past eighteen months came soon after the start of Covid instead of this rolling, slow change? Also, let that sink in. Now, one would obviously believe Covid was a 9/11, and not just a mini one. This doesn’t take away from everything that happened on 9/11, nor does it lessen its impact. Just a literal perspective.
We have a duty as Americans. A lot of us like to feel otherwise. But, in a representative democracy, we truly do have a duty. We are a government of the people, by the people, and for the people. It feels we the people are forgetting this. We neglect to remember that our government isn’t an app that works by simply clicking a few buttons coded by 1s and 0s. It’s an elected body of regular people just like you and I who we elect and entrust with power to subsequently represent us and the will of the voters. Our government has divisions within it for a reason. These checks and balances have purposes. It has different layers for a reason, as well. The counties, cities, and states. We live in a nation that offers free mobility. Free elections. Free thinking. But, we the people need to power all of this. It doesn’t work without us. And again, this is our duty.
Instead of using this amazing design to our advantage today, we neglect and abuse it. We tune out and refuse to engage. We divide and conquer. We cast blame and doubt. We try to discredit instead of working together. We cause this. How many of us sit back and tell others when chatting about 9/11 that we vividly recall the feeling of togetherness soon after that tragic day. How many of us have reminisced in the last twenty years about that patriotism we all felt? Have you had a talk with someone and cheerfully longed for those days after 9/11 when it seemed like we Americans were a huge, happy family all in it together?
Put it all together. The good, the bad, and the ugly. Now, overlap it with today. The ugly. America is an idea. And, no that’s not a literary cliche. We were the great experiment. We are still the great experiment. But, our destiny is created by us.
Abe Lincoln once said, “From whence shall we expect the approach of danger? Shall some trans-Atlantic military giant step the earth and crush us at a blow? Never. All the armies of Europe and Asia…could not by force take a drink from the Ohio River or make a track on the Blue Ridge in the trial of a thousand years. No, if destruction be our lot we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of free men we will live forever or die by suicide.”
He couldn’t have been more right, and the quote reigns supreme today. There’s a lot we can learn from 9/11. We can and need to remember when we all came together. When we rallied as one. We also need to carefully examine what powers we willingly allow our government to enact to increase our safety. We cannot gain something without sacrificing another. And, we need to never lose faith, hope, and trust in our government. We have the best government that’s ever been created on the planet. We couldn’t be more fortunate to live in this nation. But, if we abandon our ideals and principles, our government becomes abandoned as well. If we dig our heels in further and do not stand up and explain enough, we will be our own demise.
We don’t need to wait for another tragic day like 9/11 to heal our differences. That day may never come, or it may come too late. If we want to unite and feel how we felt the days after 9/11, then it is truly a weight only we can carry.