9/11, 3 years on:

I remember the first words I heard telling me that something unusual had just happened. I remember the voice mail I got at the office from my wife telling me to listen to the news. I remember hearing people relay news reported to them from spouses or friends over the phone (some of which turned out to be wrong). I remember thinking that when the towers came down the death toll could reach into 5 figures. (I remember being so grateful later on that it wasn’t.) I remember my boss telling everyone to go home. I remember watching TV pretty much the rest of the day. I remember when my kids got home from school and we talked about what had happened.

My kids took it well. They asked questions, and I answered them the best that I could. I’ve always tried to instill a sense of history in them when interesting things happened (we talked a lot about the 2000 election debacle), but in this case there was history mixed with a sadness, even a reverence, for those who just went to work that day and never came home.

One of my daughters was studying the state of New York in school and had recently decided to do a diorama of New York City. When it came time to do the buildings, I was going to print out a picture of the skyline, which we’d cut up and give a 3-D look to. When we asked her whether she wanted the Twin Towers there or not, she thought for a second and decided that she wanted them to be in there. She and her sister had visited the Twin Towers a couple years earlier with their aunt from Queens, and they remember looking out from the top.

Some time after the clean-up at Ground Zero was finished, I took my 3 oldest kids there. I have some pictures of them there, as well as the perfectly-proportioned cross made of steel beams that was found in the wreckage, standing tall in the midst of what should have been two tall towers and thousands of people. My picture of the cross is part of my computer wallpaper rotation, to remember that day.

I have a lot of memories from 9/11, but not nearly as many as others. One of my brothers-in-law was stuck in downtown Manhatten for 3 straight days. He did maintenance work at a hospital, and for him to leave would have meant putting patients in peril, so he stayed. When he did come home, he ate, slept, and went right back. You want memories? He’s got ’em, and they’re far more emotional than mine. My wife read Lisa Beamer’s book “Let’s Roll”. Lisa’s husband, as you probably know, was one of those that is likely responsible for downing a plane in Pennsylvania instead of the Capitol or some other target that the terrorists had planned on. You want memories? Few of ours hold a candle to hers.

So 3 years on, we’re remembering the day, each in our own way, based on our own memories. But we, as a nation, have a corporate memory as well; the sum total of all of our thoughts and experiences. This national memory sometimes fades, in and out, especially as the time passes. We were so patriotic in the days after 9/11, but where has that gone now? Some of us still are. My vehicles still have the decorations I bought for them soon after the attacks. But flag decals don’t make you patriotic. I think standing up for your country when you believe your country is right is nothing to be ashamed of. I also think criticizing your country, in a honest manner, when you believe your country is wrong is nothing to be ashamed of, either.

So I believe that criticizing a war you think is wrong is patriotic, but I don’t think that marching in the street complaining of a tyrannical government that is worse than al Qaeda is, because it’s not honest. If they were tyrannical, if they were stifling dissent, you couldn’t be marching in the street against them.

In one episode of “Star Trek: Deep Space 9”, Captain Sisko noted the problem between how Earth was handling a situation and how he thought it should be handled. His complaint was that Earth itself was the problem. They had such a utopian society there–no hunger, no disease, full employment, no poor–that they couldn’t understand the situation outside. In a similar fashion, I think we in the U.S. don’t really understand how good we’ve got it. We’ve forgotten, as a nation, what it felt like that fall morning when 3,000 died and our notion of impenetrability was shattered.

When half the populace agrees with a guy who wants to make terrorism a “law enforcement” issue, being reactive instead of proactive, you know we’re losing our national memory. When people consider the man going after terrorists to be the “real” terrorist, amnesia has set in.

Hopefully, today will remind some folks about what is really going on in the world. Seeing people who have more of an emotional attachment to their 9/11 memories might awaken in others the real reason we can’t wait for the rest of the world to agree that our country needs defending. Today is not just a day to pause presidential campaigning. It’s not just an occasion to light some candles. It’s not just for comforting those who’ve lost loved ones. It is all those things, but it is also one thing above all.

This is a day to remember.


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