What does 9/11 mean?
We all know what it represents, why it is remembered: on Sept. 11, 2001, 19 Al-Qaeda terrorists armed with box cutters took over four planes. Two were sent crashing into the World Trade Center towers in New York, toppling them, a third hit the Pentagon, the fourth crashed into a field in Pennsylvania after the passengers resisted.
Nearly 3,000 people died.
But what does it mean to us today, what does the anniversary signify?
Is it a day to recall an attack, an atrocity? Like Pearl Harbor Day? A historic commemoration?
That seems premature. At 13 years on, the feelings are too raw for that, at least among those old enough to remember—strange to think there is a whole generation, those under 16, who do not. In some ways, the day feels more like current events. Especially this year, when the news — ISIS overrunning Syria and Iraq, videos of beheadings, the United States reluctantly sinking our military back into the region — seems a direct result of the attacks. The world of radical Islam grabbed our country by the nose on 9/11 and we've been gazing at the horror they frequently make of life ever since.
This anniversary feels different. For a while. 9/11 was contracting, fading, a scab forming over the wound, the buzz of regular life drowning out the bad memories, compressing them, and our prosaic concerns squeezing that awful day into a smaller and smaller ball of pain and regret, something we could tuck away.
Now the process seems reversing. Sept. 11 is expanding this year. Fear is up, way up. It's even worse than in the immediate aftermath of the attacks. In 2002, 20 percent of Americans said the country was less safe than before 9/11. This year it's 47 percent.
And why not? Scary stuff going on. Even before now, the nature of 9/11 made the event mother's milk to conspiracy theorists, spinning fantasies from the best documented crime of all time, finding patterns in the clouds. I got a phone call last week from a pizza parlor owner in Valparaiso, Indiana, who was connecting the dots—a reduction in trains going into Chicago, four fighter jets, he said, parked at the Gary Airport, armor plate being turned out of U.S. Steel—it all fit together, and suggested to him that invasion was nigh. I listened politely, then told him to look within.
What does 9/11 mean 13 years on? There are the deaths to commemorate, but most of
us, thankfully, do not know someone who died. Is it a day of infamy? A time to nurse our outrage, to puff on our glowing ember of victimhood, which cannot be allowed to cool? Another reason to be afraid? Like Hitler's birthday, a magnet for maniacs. At the train station they posted warning signs.
Or can we make 9/11 into something more useful? Perhaps focus on the heroism of the first responders, who raced to help and died by the hundreds: 341 New York City fire fighters, a staggering figure, and two paramedics. Surely something to be remembered and mourned. If 9/11 is to become a permanent observation, I would suggest that might be a better aspect to focus on. We are a nation of do-gooders, of helpers, of fire fighters and police and emergency medical technicians. You dial 911 and somebody rushes over, no matter who you are. When people are fleeing a burning building they run toward it. Not every country has that. In some, maybe most, places, you get sick and go die on the steps of the hospital because you don't have a bribe to catch the attention of a doctor. We have something great here and don't quite realize it. Sometimes it takes something horrible to cut through the routine idiocy and make us see it.
Not to make the event into something too positive, a Grandparent's Day for paramedics. Putting tragedy to good use might be necessary, but there's no reason to embrace it too blithely. I hated Sept. 11. I don't think I've ever written that before, and am relieved to say it now. I hate it still, hate that it happened, hate that human beings are capable of such things, hate seeing the country caught so flat-footed. Maybe that's obvious, but sometimes the obvious thing must be said. It was a horrible thing done to us by insane zealots, who not only killed the innocent on that day, but murdered 100 times that in the years to come, by the time the toll of soldiers, American, Afghani, Iraqi and others, and civilians are tallied, not that it ever will or could be. I hate that we now have to remember it for the rest of history, but what choice have we?
The message of Sept. 11, to me, is that life is precious. The attack left us humbled and united for a very brief time, and then more divided and contentious than ever, and if 9/11 is to have a meaning, it is that we betray our dead, both on Sept. 11 and all previous conflicts, by being a nation of waring boobs squabbling among ourselves while our enemies run riot. We need to use it to remind ourselves that we are still one nation, one community, at times, when need be, responding to crisis, and then the crisis passes, and we turn once again to our fractured and selfish selves.
I will fly the flag Thursday, maybe peek into the big envelope where I stuck the black-covered New Yorker, the papers—the Sun-Times' three extra editions, the New York Times with a fireball that my 5-year-old, when I asked him what he made of it, said he thought looked like a flower and was "beautiful." He didn't understand then. I can't honestly say I understand it much better now, except that it wasn't beautiful and becomes less so the more you think about it. The most unbeautiful thing ever. Sept. 11 is a horror we are stuck with, whose gravity deformed us from being what we might have been, into what we instead are now, for good and ill. Mostly ill.