In every generation, I suppose there are defining moments: those events or experiences that create shared milestones and common definitions of ‘before X’ and ‘post X’ realities.
For most of us over the age of, let’s arbitrarily say 30, September 11, 2001 is one of those defining moments. For those young enough to have no meaningful memory, give grace to those around you on this anniversary. We remember where we were, what we were thinking when planes crashed into some of our most famous U.S. buildings. Most of us weren’t directly involved, we were thousands of miles away – but the brazenness of it and the fact that it was caught on cameras for viewing in perpetuity enabled it to be personally traumatizing. And it traumatizes us still, individually and collectively. It changed the way we think about our country and its place in the world; it changed the way we think about firefighters and public safety officers; it created the conditions for the longest war in the history of the United States – one fought in a place we don’t understand and for reasons that have morphed and become unclear overtime.
My husband was in Washington D.C. that morning, scheduled to fly back to Minnesota. I remember standing in my kitchen watching the Today Show and initially thinking I was seeing the trailer for a Bruce Willis movie. And then seeing the looks on the faces of the show’s hosts as the second plane plowed into the World Trade Center. What the hell?…
I called my husband’s office and asked if they knew where he was; initially his staff person said, “don’t worry, he is in Washington, not New York.” And then we saw the Pentagon hit. Turns out my husband was on the last flight to depart Reagan International Airport before the Pentagon bombing. His plane headed for Pennsylvania, then was re-routed again to Michigan. When they finally landed, he called from his cell: “what the hell?” I told him to run to the car rental area and start a drive home. He ultimately filled a van with others intending to get to Minnesota and arrived home after midnight – having not seen any of the images that by that point were burned into my brain.
It was not surprising that we as a nation and our allies pulled together unconditionally: we had a dangerous enemy and we needed to prevail. Thousands of young people volunteered for military service, and some gave their lives. What is surprising and disappointing is that we haven’t been able to stick together since. Within the span of memory for any of us who were adults in 2001, we’ve lost our capacity to maintain an allegiance to each other. What the hell?
I was too young to really understand the debates and protests about the Vietnam War (another defining moment for many older Americans), but I do understand that that, too, did deep and lasting damage to our cohesion as a nation united. So perhaps this eroding of our commitment to each other has been underway for many years. But if memories of 9/11 – the extraordinary danger we faced and ultimately destroyed – cannot sustain our cohesion…if a pandemic threatening our children and our elders doesn’t cause us to come together and problem-solve as ‘one nation, under God,’ then I really am challenged to imagine what it is going to take.
As I prepare to honor all those who lost their lives on 9/11/01, I will be lifting up hope that we recover our willingness and capacity to recognize our many privileges, our responsibilities to each other, our shared fate and what obligations come with that reality. God Bless.