Thursday, September 08, 2011

Remembering the Day

In about an hour, I'll be conducting a gathering here at Friends University, to commemorate that terrible day, nearly exactly ten years ago, in which close to three thousand people died in less than an hour, as planes crashed into buildings which burned and subsequently, horrifically, collapsed. 9/11 changed America in many ways, many of which--perhaps most of which--came out not so much because of the attacks, but because of our grief, terror, paranoia, and overreaction to what had just happened. The territory of the United States of America had suffered a horrendous terrorist attack, in which our own passenger jets, and our own comparative ease and freedom of traveling, working, and communicating, had been used against us. It was--to be brutally frank--a brilliant, audacious, even (Bill Maher notwithstanding) courageous attack. Also, and more importantly of course, a desperately, totally evil one. There's no apologizing for or justifying of it, and while I am more than happy to apologize for all the unfortunate ways I let my own anger and--again, to be brutally frank--my own ideological opportunism (at last, America can speak as one community, as a carrier of Western civilization, as something with an enemy which can pull us together!) stampede me into agreeing, even if only theoretically, with the notion that our "War on Terror" justified acts which bordered on quasi-imperialism...the attacks themselves still remain. I don't mourn their author's execution at the hands of American troops. Thousands were killed, and hundreds of thousands more found their lives torn apart and perhaps ruined, and millions around the work have felt the political and social and military consequences, because of what Al-Qaeda's particular form of radical Islamic jihadism, because of what Osama bin Laden and others like him promulgated. On September 11th, 2001.

I've told the story before. How the Wold Trade Center was hit by one plane, and then another, as I went about my business of getting ready for another day at my first teaching job, at Mississippi State University; how by the time I'd biked into campus people were already spreading rumors, and watching in silence CNN on televsion sets being hastily set up in classrooms and corridors, listening to the radio (how primitive that must seem to readers today, thinking about those dusty old pre-smartphone years!); how I was on the phone to Melissa on and off through the whole day, as we learned about the strike on the Pentagon (and desperately tried to contact friends in Washington DC, from which we'd move only weeks before), and swapped what little we knew (me from constantly hitting refresh on the New York Times's, the Washington Post's, and Andrew Sullivan's websites; her from switching between all the channels in our cable-enabled apartment), and absorbed the horror the the fifth largest building in the world (at the time) collapse in smoke and dust and noise. That's our story of the day; everyone has one. Except, perhaps not all the students we (myself and other faculty members) hope to be able to speak to tonight. One of my students worked at the Center for American Progress over the summer, and one of his projects was to develop a program to reach out to people like him--"Millennials," the "9/11 Generation," those who were children or adolescents or barely out of it, kids that were in high school, middle school, elementary school, the day the planes flew out of the sky. In a sense, they all have stories too--of lockdowns and tearful school assemblies, of prayers around the flagpoles and boastful claims by those looking forward to a fight. But their stories are limited, I suspect, because for the most part the aforementioned grief, terror, paranoia, and overreaction have been mostly all they've known. Multiple wars? Military tribunals? Taking off your shoes before you get on a plane? Did it really used to be different? Actually yes--maybe not entirely, but mostly, yes, it was.

So we want to tell stories, to help them appreciate the change, to help them remember the day. And, maybe even more importantly, the day before the day. Only by remembering both, I think, can we really hope to learn what 9/11 changed, and what it didn't, and what it needn't, and what perhaps we really need to change back again.

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