September 11 again… inevitably, inexorably, the calendar turns to this fateful, sorrowful date. The nation that awoke at dawn eight years ago on September 11 was a country at peace with most of the civilized world, comfortable at the apex of world power and cultural dominance, a place of expansive opportunity and booming economic prosperity. The federal budget had enjoyed four surplus years.
All that changed at 8:46 a.m. on September 11 when the first plane hit the north tower. In the ensuing minutes and hours, thousands of people died at the hands of murderous fanatics as a horrified world watched, helpless, aghast, terrorized. The collapse of the twin towers in New York, attack on the Pentagon, crash of Flight 93 in Pennsylvania all unleased real and metaphorical clouds of toxic dust into the atmosphere, choking our lungs with microscopic particles, seeping into our brains with molecules of rage, retribution, revenge. The national body politic may never quite be cleansed of the toxins of September 11.
We knew who did this to us, and we went out to “bring ‘em to justice,” “Dead or Alive.” We rounded up likely suspects and packed them into Gitmo. We launched “shock and awe” over Baghdad. We sent our best troops into the unforgiving terrain of the Afghan mountains. We became a warrior nation, determined to prove that we were more powerful than the bully who shattered our peace with his cruel and demented agents of death.
With the real culprit eluding capture, this grief-stricken nation readily sought to quench that awful thirst for revenge against surrogate targets — but gained no relief from the bombing of Baghdad or the tawdry spectacle of the hanging of Saddam Hussein (yes, a murderous tyrant, but not the perpetrator of 9/11 as we have since learned.) Our victimology grew deeper.
We learned to live with various levels of fear and discomfort to avoid ever repeating those terrible morning scenes of planes crashing into buildings. We walk barefoot through airport metal detectors and allow the TSA agents in their latex gloves to paw through our personal items, confiscating toothpaste and shampoo. We keep our “preparedness” bags with flashlights and duct tape and granola bars in the trunk of the car. We drive longer distances to avoid airports entirely. We skip those weekend escapes to Canada because we forgot to renew the passports we didn’t ever need before.
Meanwhile, with national leadership distracted, the economy slid into the worst recession since the 1930’s.
The nation finally said, “Enough” and voted for change. But the wars continue, the financial and human tolls continue to mount, the economic recovery is slow. Even George Will has said, “Enough!” on the war in Afghanistan; it’s time to bring the troops home.
Eight years later, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have lasted nearly twice as long as World War II; they have surpassed the cost of the protracted Vietnam War by billions. More than 5,000 American troops have died in these operations — no longer called the War on Terrorism — and tens of thousands have sustained serious wounds.
Eight years later, we are behaving like a family imploding after a terrible tragedy. We argue and bicker and shout, “You lie!” in the House Chamber; we splatter our anger and distrust — of the terrorists, of the government, of leaders who make promises they can’t keep, of bankers who duped homeowners now losing their homes, of each other — all over town halls and blogs and twitters and television screens. We are still stuck in the worst stages of grieving, the ones about denial and depression and anger and guilt. We have not really moved on to the healing, the acceptance, the hope. In fact, the failure of the wars and the collapse of the economy have aggravated the powerlessness, the utter helplessness we felt watching the twin towers collapse.
Yes, it is time to move on — not from remembering and honoring those who have died, and certainly not from defending our national security. But our most lasting tribute to those who have given their lives is to improve the quality of life for the generations coming up quickly behind us. Our best hope for true national security is to restore a a true sense of national unity and common purpose, to show the world our strength through the peaceful arts of education and innovation, economic growth arising from improved productivity and the pursuit of institutional excellence in our public and private institutions. Rather than picking fights we should be picking teams to work on solving the huge national challenges we still face in education, healthcare, economic recovery and environmental protection.
Let’s use the reflections of this September 11 to gather the courage and resolve to make peace with ourselves, to find ways to work together across party lines, to cut each other some slack in not going ballistic over every difference of opinion, to work harder at exhibiting the qualities of mercy and compassion that are essential for justice and peace to prevail.