The tenth anniversary of 9/11 was nearly impossible to avoid. Coverage of remembrances dominated the news, special features dotted the cable teevee lineup, and star spangled displays opened a season of NFL football. The most pressing moments for me, however, were the questions of my kids who were too young on that day to remember it. The stories that washed over the nation have come to them as small sprays from a quieted tide that still runs a bit angry at times.
Like many news events, clarity came through their eyes. It has to, after all, since much of this will define their generation. There is a unity that will also never be forgotten.
The response to a Barataria retrospective on the economy over the last ten years shocked and somewhat saddened me. “We let bin Laden win” echoed the tale of ten years of wandering that has marked our nation since. That wasn’t my intention when I wrote the piece. Without any mention of the war in Iraq, our massive military spending, or calls for civility you readers connected the dots. Something went horribly wrong on that day as the towers fell. Our hearts fell with them.
The coverage of the anniversary brought back a different feeling of resolution and strength. Right afterwards our horror and sadness reflected back on us as unity, a call to stand together. Remembering 9/11 brought forward one absolutely critical memory that we should never have let go – the nation took its biggest defeat in a long time as a challenge to move forward, together, and achieve greatness again.
And it has not happened.
We can crow about finally getting bin Laden after so long or deliberately see the ongoing war in Afghanistan as some kind of victory if we want, but the main feeling that has washed over the nation in the last ten years has been division and defeat. The attack made us stand up and sing together, but when the crises came home we were more likely to shout and demand that we get our way. And so we have fallen much like the World Trade Center, our own weight collapsing in place, floor by floor, with an astonishing speed and a terrible cloud of dust.
There are many reasons to hope that we are at a turning point in the national discussion. The debt ceiling crisis engaged the public and laid bare how broken politics has become. Unemployment and foreclosure have become so common that shame has been wrung out of discussing them publicly. Yet what might give us the most hope that we are finally serious enough to tackle the fundamental problems of this nation was the revival of that 9/11 spirit – that we cannot be humbled because we stand united. As President Obama said in an editorial for the day:
On a day when others tried to divide us, we can regain the sense of common purpose that stirred in our hearts 10 years ago. As a nation, we face difficult challenges, and as citizens in a democratic society we engage in vigorous debates about the future. But as we do, let’s never forget the lesson we learned anew 10 years ago — that our differences pale beside what unites us and that when we choose to move forward together, as one American family, the United States doesn’t just endure, we can emerge from our tests and trials stronger than before.
My kids do not remember the attacks or what life was like without constant orange alert. Recounting 9/11 unity came as a surprise because, as is typical with kids, they witnessed what we have done and set aside what we said we would do. Yet Dad had a few stories to tell them in memoriam that stretched beyond heroism and horror. There was a greater story of a nation mobilized, ready to take on its challenges together. Like any hero’s journey it twists, turns and wanders to where the lesson is explained by its dark opposite. But that story has not ended yet.
The unity of that story is the unity of our people. There is a generation that will be defined by the story and how it is finally written. How have we defined the world they will inherit, both in fact and fable?