Ten years ago today. We are all remembering exactly where we were ten years ago today. September 11th, 2001. Where we were when we first heard that the world would no longer be the same.
And there is such a urge, to share that story. In official memorial ceremonies, in personal conversations, even as a facebook status. Somehow it seems the only way we are able to express our individual part of the tragedy, is through the telling of this story. the moment it touched us in our lives, wherever that might have been.
I was at home. I remember coming downstairs to the kitchen and my mom had the news on, on our small tv perched on top of the refrigerator. Really too small to contain the overwhelming horror of what was coming at us through its screen. The first plane had hit and the smoke billowing out like pissed off hornets that have had their nest disturbed. And suddenly the second plane hit. This wasn’t an accident anymore. I don’t really know why, but I went upstairs to continue watching on another tv alone. Maybe because somehow I sensed that a tragedy of this magnitude wasn’t something that could immediately be shared. And the first building collapsed. And I begged God, make it stop. And the second building collapsed. Dear God please, please make it stop.
To stop not just at the twin towers and the pentagon, but all the suffering that was occurring. That was yet to occur.
We feel we have to tell this story, the moment when we first heard, because it was somehow in that first instant we knew, without really knowing, that the world had just changed.
And a new set of words and phrases entered our national vocabulary. Terrorist. Al-Qaeda. Towel-heads. War on terror. Suddenly we could find the location on a map two previously obscure middle eastern countries. But the change went so much deeper than that, revealing both the best and the worst in ourselves as a nation, ourselves as people.
First came overwhelming feelings of solidarity and patriotism. American flags suddenly proudly were everywhere. Which was especially notable in the northeast, where we are not known for being so overtly patriotic. Bridges, houses, car magnets. God bless America reduced to a bumper sticker slogan.
A few days later, I sat with my best friend on the front steps of her house and we lit a candle during a national moment of silence. We sat there for a long time after the candle burnt out, without saying much of anything. There was really nothing that could be said.
I have changed much in these past ten years. Our country has changed as well. It’s tempting to say 9/11 was the moment we lost our innocence as a nation. But I don’t think that’s really accurate, the US as a country has too long been involved in bloodshed to say that. But what is true that is that 9/11 was the moment we knew what it was like to experience fear as a nation.
I’ve spent the better part of the last four years living in outside the US. It’s given me a new perspective on my own culture that I couldn’t have before, when I had nothing to compare it to. Hearing the stories of people from Argentina and Bolivia and Honduras and the Dominican Republic, and learning their histories, I can now better appreciate something that I took completely for granted. Something that many people in the world don’t have. A freedom from fear of my own government. People who lived through oppressive dictatorships, in which outspoken political critics simply disappeared (not unlike present-day China). There was much fierce criticism of the Bush administration, but because of the freedoms we enjoy, it could be shouted from major news stations, out in the open without fear of the secret police dragging you from your bed in the middle of the night.
But we are very far from perfect either. Because, while we might become choked up at the images of the towers falling, the vast majority of us have never smelled that smoke or heard the explosions. Which is not true for the people of Iraq or Afghanistan. They know a real fear I have never had to experience. And while many lost loved ones on 9/11, tens of thousands more have been killed as a result of our involvement in the Middle East. No one is reading a list of their names today, but that doesn’t make their lives any less valuable. And the pain they feel and the tears they cry is exactly the same as our own.
“No man is an island,
Entire of itself….
…Each man’s death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.”
I recently watched a popular movie which ends with the main character dying in the world trade center on September 11th. I struggled to explain to my friends-neither American, one from Austria and the other Dominican- why it made me so choked up , that found that so painful, almost offensive. No I didn’t personally lose anyone in the attacks, although I know people who did. Yes its been ten years, but still its too raw, too soon. This is not yet a historical event for me, but personal. But it goes beyond even the individual tragedies and is something shared by all us all.
Immediately after the attacks, and even more so now, ten years later, we hear the refrain “never forget”. But is that enough? Because the harsh truth is eventually we, as a nation, will forgot. Much like the attacks on Pearl Harbor don’t move me as they do my grandparents, one day my grandchildren will also not easily or fully grasp the significance of this day. So yes, we do need to remember, but we also need to do far more.
We need to create a world in which violence does not lead to more violence. In our own personal lives and as well as between nations.
It is not enough to resolve to never forget. We as a people, as a nation need to resolve to forgive. And especially, to ask for forgiveness.
Let that become the new story we tell.