Monday, September 11, 2017

Remembering


Sixteen years ago -- hard to believe it's been that long -- I was fast asleep. My girlfriend (who later became my wife, and is now my ex-wife), an event planner, was asleep next to me, having decided to come home the night before instead of spending the night with her colleagues at the event they had been putting together for the next day. I was awoken by the phone, and my girlfriend's mother asking frantically where she was. When I told her she was with me, the relief was palpable ... then she told me to turn on the TV.

When I did, and the picture finally came up, it was just in time to see the second plane hit. I didn't know what I was looking at. Even after hearing Tom Brokaw explain it to me, I was still having a difficult time wrapping my head around it.

It didn't take long for it to sink in. I sat on the couch, smoking incessantly while my eyes were glued to the TV. My girlfriend got up and took a shower to calm herself. While she was in there I had to be the one to tell her that the south tower had collapsed.

I could go on with a play-by-play of the entire day, and those that followed ... the second tower collapsing, the single engine plane that went overhead a couple of days later (not an uncommon occurrence) that was followed seconds later by two F-15s (an extremely uncommon occurrence) ... but instead I want to focus on what has become of us since then.

We have seen a number of fundamental changes in our society in those years. Some of them were a direct result of the attacks, others were part of the "natural" progression of society, still others were ... well, just kinda random. I'm going to focus on those elements that sprung directly from the attacks.

Increased airport security
Prior to 9/11, airport screening consisted of a bored, minimum wage mall cop asking you if you were carrying any explosives or firearms, requiring a single-word answer ("no"). You had to go through a metal detector; as it turns out, many of them weren't even turned on about half the time. The cockpit door was basically the same as the door to the lavatory, it was wide open while passengers boarded the plane, and it was not uncommon for the cockpit crew to take a little stroll down the aisle to chat with passengers, stretch their legs, or possibly sexually harass a flight attendant in the back.

Nowadays you're lucky if you can get on a place without a full cavity search. If you give any indication that you are not WASPy enough, you may be pulled off the flight by an air marshal.

Oh, and we have "air marshals" now.

A new (mis)understanding of Islam
In the 20th century and the first eight months of the 21st, Muslims were basically cartoon characters in the West: they were either shrieking maniacs with scimitars who made weird ululating cries before being shot by Indiana Jones, or they were adorable urchins who abducted princesses for magic carpet rides before singing a romantic ballad in a flawless, if somewhat bland and uninspired, tenor.

After 9/11, we in the West began to understand that there are two kinds of Islam: the shrieking maniac kind, and the devoutly religious but otherwise peaceful kind. Fortunately our leaders at the time understood the difference between the two, and took great pains to point out that the maniacs were nothing more than a very extreme, very tiny minority, and that we should not paint all Muslims with the broad "terrorist" brush.

Of course, I'm kidding. The George W. Bush administration, under the capable, slimy hands of Darth Cheney, decided that since Islamic fundamentalists were batshit crazy they couldn't possibly be a part of the same religion as the rest of Islam, so therefore all Muslims wore suicide vests as fashion statements. After all, it's not like Christianity had intolerant, racist, spittle-emitting lunatics posing as fundamentalists, right?

Orwell may have been onto something
In 1984, the citizens of Oceania -- formerly North America and the British Isles -- lived in an oppressive society in which a constant state of war exists between either Eastasia or Eurasia (the antagonists switch every now and again, but nobody seems to notice since all records are scrubbed), each citizen's movements and activities are monitored every minute of every day, and even thinking, much less voicing aloud, thoughts that were "impure" could get you arrested or killed.

In 2017, the citizens of the United States live in a constant state of war with either Afghanistan, Iraq, or Syria (depending on who you talk to and when you talk to them), our actions and activities are pretty closely monitored thanks to domestic surveillance put in place by the Bush administration and studiously not removed by anyone since, and while "thoughtcrime" doesn't exist (yet) there are people whose lives have been ruined due to backlash resulting from the voicing of unpopular views.

I'm thinking George Orwell may have been more prophetic than anyone realized.

As time goes on the 9/11 attacks become less "traumatic national crisis" and more "important historical event." I have not a few friends who are no longer with us who were alive on that day. I have two children who were not yet born on that day. More and more I am encountering people for whom 9/11 was not a defining moment in their lives but yet another date to remember on a history exam.

It's similar, I suppose, to the assassination of President Kennedy. That happened almost ten months before I was born, so I do not have anywhere near the connection to it that, say, my parents had (they were twenty five when it happened). I'm guessing that, by 1979, this catastrophic tragedy had faded in impact due to an entire generation growing up outside of its shadow, in much the same way that we have people graduating from high school this year who were too young to remember anything from that fateful day in September, 2001.

It is important that we teach them. Not just the facts and figures, not just the names, dates, and places, but also the stories ... the hundreds of first responders who rushed into harm's way to try to save lives; the heroism of the passengers of Flight 93 when they realized that they people who took over the plane were on a suicide mission; the people in Queens and Brooklyn who took in tired, footsore Manhattanites who had walked across the Brooklyn Bridge because there was no other way off the island. We need to teach them that this was a momentous event, one that helped to define our national character for decades to come, and that we will soon be passing the torch to them to carry on the work of rebuilding. Not just the buildings and infrastructure, but also our national identity, our reputation as a "shining city on the hill" (to cop a quote from Ronald Reagan), our standing as a beacon of freedom, and liberty, and tolerance, and light.

Now, sixteen years later, the pain of that day has lessened. The immediacy is gone. The scars left by the twin towers have been healed, and One Freedom Tower stands where there had been smoking, burning rubble. The Pentagon has been repaired. The field in Pennsylvania where Flight 93 was forced down by the passengers has become a holy site, much like the battlefields in Gettysburg and Spotsylvania, memorials to the thousands who lost their lives on those days.

True story: a few days after the attacks there was a telethon to raise funds for the families of the victims. Hundreds -- thousands -- of people volunteered their time. Some performed gratis (Billy Joel's version of "New York State of Mind" was almost heartbreaking), while other well-known celebrities were answering phones. I called in to pledge my $25, and I found myself speaking with Robert DeNiro.

I knew this was his hometown, so I asked him "Mr. DeNiro, how are you doing with all this?" There was a moment of silence, then a sigh, then he said "I lost a couple of people. It's hard." There was another pause, and he became all business ... but in that brief moment he was not an internationally recognized movie star talking to an out-of-work database administrator, we were just a couple of guys trying to make sense of a world that had been completely upended in the space of roughly twenty minutes.


It is important on this day to not only remember what happened and who it happened to, but also to acknowledge that it could have turned out so much worse. The attackers were trying to terrify us, to make us afraid, maybe even to force us to turn against each other. They did not count on the resilience of the American spirit, the sheer determination of the American people to not be cowed.

Above all, they did not understand the sacrifices we, as a people, are willing to make to ensure that such evil does not go unchallenged.

I gotta lie down.

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