It’s important to remember what we lost.
Not just the people who’s lives were sacrificed both in that moment and as the result of their selfless acts during the recovery effort. Not just the surviving family members and close friends of the victims of that tragic day and the years of recovery that followed.
We, as survivors, lost a lot too. We were different then. We may not have lost our lives, or a loved one, but we lost a major part of who we were then. It forever indelibly marks who we are having witnessed the tragedy first hand and has crafted who we’ve become in each moment since. It impacts those who are living with the idea even though they weren’t there to have the memory. This is who we are now. As Americans. As Humans.
Heading to the train this morning the air moist with that odd combination foggy warmth with just a tinge of a cool Hudson River breeze wafting over the hill. Dreary, pre-autumnal blah at its most unremarkable. The ride on the train was nothing special either, crowded but not uncomfortable with the din of muted conversations, the tapping of keyboards and the rustling of news papers overcoming the clacking of the steel wheels as they rumbled down the tracks. The collective conscious probably as enamored with the now once again daily routine of commuting as it may have been quietly remembering the events of years ago.
The run up this year felt uninspired compared to the anniversary a few years back. Those early years there was a lot of pomp and circumstance each time the calendar rolled into September as one would expect with the wound being so fresh. Even the time between the five and ten year anniversaries hardly felt like a lull. There was some sort of connection to the day throughout the entire Bloomberg era here in the city that made it impossible to really ever be allowed to forget. Since the decade anniversary though it’s felt maybe a little less of such a big affair. Not that anyone is probably intentionally doing anything any different but much like all other life events, those that fall between the mile markers of decades and quarter centuries get much less attention. It’s a weird cultural phenomenon that even the September 11th attacks are unable to abate, not unlike the December 7th Day of Infamy or the July 4th “birth” of our nation before them.
All of this gets me to further thinking. Not about the day any more. I don’t repress those memories any more than I would intentionally relive them. They simply exist now and my mind wanders to a more critical assessment of who I am as a person now. Who we are a citizens now. Who we are as humans now. Now that the event is displaced from recency.
Being a tri-stater, I’m acutely aware of the perception that somehow dwelling in the urban metropolis of the City we’re less American than our midwestern and ruralesque counterparts. Talking heads and political windbags love to use divisive rhetoric that somehow pitches all the minorities here are sucking up the tax dollars as welfare queens and illegals while the white folk are rich, progressives who are bend on liberalizing everything and turning the worth into an godless grab-bag. That somehow being from a city, particularly this city somehow devalues my citizenship and birthright or that somehow someone residing between the mountain ranges outside the concrete jungle is more valuable. Sometimes it comes off as if citizenship wasn’t absolute but along a gradient or continuum. If a life here is less valuable in this perception, is a death too?
A comedian or three have noted in response to this idea the terrorists weren’t trying to blow up barns and tracker factories as a symbols of America which makes you wonder where the real America really is. I’ve caught myself feeling something similar when I hear people who weren’t in New York/ New Jersey or DC talk about their reactions to September 11. From hundreds of miles and a whole cultural mindset away watching on their television they certainly felt something but it couldn’t be nearly as real as having been there and witnessed it first hand without broadcast spin. Could it?
It’s important to consider these things. We really are different. Our place of residency shapes the culture around us. Who our neighbors are (and how many of them there are) shapes our perceptions, beliefs, ideas as much as it impacts our needs and wants, changes our responsibilities and expectations, etc. But, in the spirit of common American Dream it shouldn’t define us or divide us.
Yes, we all should reflect on how, for a moment, we put who we were and all those differences behind us. We forgot we if were rural or urban, if we were democrat or republican, if we were religious or not, and so on and were just American joined in our solidarity to the hopes and dreams that make up the assumed cultural fabric of our country.
It seems sometimes though we only put those differences aside for that particular moment in time and in the decade plus since we’ve no only rekindled our own divisiveness, we’ve increased it multi-fold. We are all those divisions and more when we allow ourselves to be.
Sadly, rather than serving as the long-term bonding of people like tragedies past seem to have in the history books, it became a grander reason to fight with one another more. We become the product of division rather than of coming together are argue over everything as a result. Was the military response strong enough and targeting the right people if we even should have had one? Was the capture and trial of those responsible done quickly or effectively enough and can it or will it ever produce a sense of justice? How should we protect ourselves from the possibility of such an attack in the future and prevent other kinds of terrorism? How should we memorialize the day, the site and what should the memorial represent be it the lives lost or the lives survived or the collective reaction or our will to rebuild? How we should view our fellow citizens and how they look, or act, or speak, or believe?
We lost our innocence as a country again, as if having survived a Civil War and the topsy-turvy of two World Wars sandwiching an economic depression could have left us feeling at all innocent collectively. However far we’d come from the last shock to the American psyche September 11th brutalized us as a country yet again and in the aftermath as the moment itself faded we lost who we were that day. It is very much an us-versus-them world where the them is really the other us. We are defined by our differences and not our interest in helping one another come together to overcome our collective adversities.
For one day a year we pretend to perhaps put that aside. And, even when we do mostly manage to put it aside for a few hours in the morning during the ceremonies of remembrance out of respect it creeps back into our common vernacular to be hateful, to be spiteful, and to blight the brief perception of American commonality. Hearing political rubbish like ‘remember Bengazi’ come up as a direct response to remember Sept. 11 poignantly tells the tale we can’t even put it aside for one day considering those same windbags aren’t remembering the first terrorist attack on the Twin Towers, or any of the other acts of aggression that killed civilians, soldiers and diplomats outside of war like the terrorist attack on the USS Cole or the ’98 al-Qaeda dual Embassy attacks or Sana’a, Yemen assault to name a few recent ones. They make political theater out of death and dishonestly undercut the tremendous importance of September 11th. Not to diminish the loss of life in Bengazi but it doesn’t rise in uniqueness or scale or impact to that of the day’s origin and it never should and any attempt at it is an example of how much we aren’t truly brought together in the response to the attack on the Towers and the Pentagon.
We’re who we are and we all deal with crisis differently. We perceive the experience of having lived through it different and respond to it in our own ways. What made the initial response to September 11th so folkloreish was how we set aside those differences and embraced our idiosyncrasies to demonstrate being one nation.
If we’ve truly lost the one nation phenomenon, I’m saddened by it. It was the belief to have had. It was something that gave myself and many others faith and provided a comfort and solace. I’m not sure if we, collectively as US Citizens, believe it as a cultural truth anymore though. I’m not sure if I myself believe it sometimes. I struggle, as I’m sure many other people probably silently do too, to rectify the ailments of the American Condition with that of the Utopian image I still want to have of our great nation.
I want to truly embrace without question, without callous, that the free expression of love and togetherness I witnessed the afternoon/evening of September 11th is who we really are as a culture. I look back and I hope that I’m not just holding a memory I created or a view through rosey colored glasses of that day and the days that followed. I’m pretty sure I’m not as I’ve cataloged the range of emotions I’ve felt reflecting year after year, but I realized as I completed writing this that I felt eeriely similar last year which leaves me feeling about as grey and forelorn as the weather.
Am I better than I was a year ago at coping with the complex and ranging emotions I have about the day, about my neighbors and fellow citizens, about my government, about my god? I would like to believe I am but as I’m so fond of noting a belief isn’t a fact and I cannot factually say I am better in any of those. What’s important is I’m trying. As learning (trying in this case) is a lifelong process without an endpoint and success is a relative term, relative to where I was last year I know more than I did before about myself, about my neighbors, my government and my god. Whether what I know is subjective or objective, belief or fact, doesn’t matter for the sake of the post, only that I’ve collected more data in which to work with and I’m still in the processes of assimilating all that data while collecting ever more. It’s a process I’ll never be done with.
So, I glance southward now from my office window at the gleaming blueish windows of the Freedom Tower struggling to glisten in the grey autumn midday. Even without the sun beaming on it, it manages to still be a beacon along the gritty Manhattan skyline. A symbol of hope, of resilience, of ingenuity and our collective identity. It serves as a reminder to me to strive for those elements in my life and provide the positive foundation for those around me to strive and achieve the same. Together we can embody hope. Together we will overcome resistance. Together we will invent and explore and achieve. Together we are American. Together, most importantly, we are Human.