Sept. 11: How one day changed us forever
In many ways, it’s just another day. Bob Dylan’s new CD is out. It’s Toddler Tuesday at the Charles Town Landing State Historic Site. Construction workers frame and roof. Gardeners trim and clean. Teachers explain. Chefs cook.
But this is not a regular day at all, of course. This is the 11th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks that punctured America’s naiveté and reasserted that us-versus-them paradigm, a day that explicitly named a new enemy and signaled the start of two new wars.
Nearly 3,000 people died that bright Tuesday morning as a result of al-Qaida’s airplane hijackings. During the subsequent war in Iraq, 4,400 U.S. service men and women were killed and 32,000 were injured. Civilian deaths almost certainly exceed 100,000, according to multiple sources (and possibly surpass 600,000, according to a Lancet survey).
In Afghanistan so far, more than 1,800 U.S. personnel have been killed and about 10,000 wounded. Perhaps 70,000 civilians have died.
To say the 9/11 attacks changed America is an understatement.
Yet even as the wars were in their early years and the trauma of the lost towers still raw, Americans were told to keep shopping, to resist the temptation to hate, to maintain their values and faith. The government will do its work, the message went, the rest of us should forge ahead as if it were Sept. 10.
Eleven years later, we are over the hump of the milestone 10th anniversary and a new generation has come of age — young people who were children at the time and unable to grasp the full implications of the attacks.
The magnificent 9/11 memorial at ground zero is completed. The 104-story tower called One World Trade Center is nearly finished. The wound has been replaced by scar tissue, and that tissue is beginning to soften a little.
Some of us still find it impossible to look at certain images. I was a witness to the day, living in New York City and watching with dismay as the yellow haze floated through my Brooklyn neighborhood, sending down a drizzle of fire-singed file papers. I cannot bear the sight of that infamous photograph of the fireball bursting through the center of the South Tower.
But my daughter, who was not yet 2 years old on that day, being pushed in her stroller through the haze and ash, understands 9/11 differently.
And the people outside New York City — and far from Washington, D.C., Arlington, Va., and the area around Shanksville, Pa. — who watched the horror unfold on television were affected in another way. Their children, in turn, reacted in accordance with their age and context. Perspectives change with generational and geographical distance.
The 9/11 attacks served to unite Americans for a time, but then old rivalries — divergent political and religious ideologies, social priorities and economic imperatives — began to find their way back into public discourse. Soon, the status quo asserted itself. Innocence might have been lost, and perhaps a certain confidence, but not much else.
This dynamic, though, is not unusual. This is the adjustment we make. This is what happens after national trauma.
Today, who can recall the anger and anguish that gripped the country after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor? Who remembers precisely where you were and what you were doing — and how you felt — when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated?
“It’s kind of like grief, isn’t it?” said Von Bakanic, a sociology professor at the College of Charleston. “You have to live.”
And so Americans today think about this anniversary, or don’t think about it. They go on living. They fulfill their obligations. They do their shopping. They shuttle their kids around town. They watch a movie. They go to work.
And some keep searching for answers.
What of the dead? How do we memorialize them now? With fanfare or quiet prayer? With a contemplative pilgrimage or bittersweet toast among company?
And what of this so-called war on terror? What can we do to help American troops? What can we do to prevent the next assault? What must we do to change the world?
Christine Grenier, a math tutor in town, said she’s often upset by the way people respond on the anniversary. They try to show their compassion, but the event was overwhelming, and any reaction, no matter how sincere, strikes her as inadequate.
“I feel like it’s a bigger loss than I can comprehend,” Grenier said, “and I don’t want to disrespect it.”
She was in New York at the beginning of 2002, teaching at St. Ignatius Loyola School on the Upper East Side. Six of her students had lost a parent in the attacks. She was friendly with one of the widows, and taken aback when the woman, only months after her loss, danced with abandonment at a school event.
And there was the man, the father of one of her students, who survived the attacks because he was late for work but lost many of his friends and colleagues. Guilt and stress and anger consumed him in the weeks that followed.
These are people who found a way to endure. But how?
“There’s something there that’s too good for me,” Grenier said.
The Rev. Bert Keller was in his office at the Medical University of South Carolina the day of the attacks. A secretary with access to a small television told him something really big was happening and he ought to have a look. Keller, like so many others, remained glued to the TV all day. He had visited the twin towers some years before and worried that the casualty rate would reach in the tens of thousands, he said.
“It was a horrific kind of thing.”
And the horror was exacerbated by the response.
“We immediately got off on the wrong foot,” Keller said. “This was an opportunity for national self-examination and reaching out for healing, and instead it became a time of vengeance and unbridled anger that led us into irrational and extremely costly avenues of action that we should never have taken. And that really did condition a lot the way I feel about the day.”
Brady Anderson, a Charleston resident and former Clinton administration official, was visiting his daughter in Greensboro, N.C., holding his newborn granddaughter in his arms, when the planes struck. He said the date “9/11” sticks with us because of its symbolic importance.
“It’s shorthand for something to Americans that’s at the same time very, very bad — and even evil — but that also symbolizes how we view ourselves. Something really bad happens and we bounce back. I think it has both pieces to it. It’s not just a negative.”
The date also is significant because it marked the moment Americans woke up to the dangers of terrorism and realized the nation’s vulnerability, Anderson said. And it led to changes that have made the U.S. more secure.
“Defeat turns into victory, in a way,” he said. “Whatever they tried to do on 9/11, they didn’t do.”
So the 11th anniversary is upon us, in an election year, at a time when the nation is badly divided on ideological grounds, when “truth” is not always the sum of the facts and the common good is often lost among the rhetoric.
For me, 9/11 carries a special significance: I will always remember the solidarity that encompassed my city, the fellowship that ensued, the outpouring of collective anguish and consolation. I will remember that better than the partisan acrimony that followed. I will find some comfort in it, and some small hope that a shared determination to manage and overcome hardship may one day characterize America again. For a nation can thrive only when its citizens find a common purpose.
Others will consider this day differently. They will find comfort in their own way. And future generations will learn what we teach them about Sept. 11, and they will mark the day with public events and private remembrances. They will look back into history and reach their own conclusions.
“What does the day mean?” Bakanic asked. “I guess it means as many things as there are individuals who experienced it.”
Reach Adam Parker at 937-5902. Follow him at www.facebook.com/aparkerwriter.