Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Last Reflections Upon 9/11

Every anniversary of the September 11th terrorist attacks makes me reflective upon the past, but this one is different.  For the first time, it dawns on me how long ago it really was.  Maybe it is because I'm a teacher who has students in high school that don't have concrete memories of the event.  I mean, think about that: were it not for some historical source, these kids, who will very shortly be voting adults, would not really understand 9/11.  A new generation is already taking the stage that never knew a world without that terrible event.

When I stop and think about the last ten years in their own right, it really becomes apparent how old that event is now.  I was in high school myself then.  All of college, which itself seems a lifetime ago, happened since.  Many old flames that I barely remember sparked, raged, and went out in that vast expanse of time.  Strangely, I recall 9/11/01 better than I do 01/01/05, my 21st birthday, though perhaps there are other explanations for that.  But then, I remember 9/11 better than the first day of just about any job I've had, or of college.

I wonder sometimes if people alive during the Pearl Harbor attack felt the same way until I remember that ten years afterwards would be December 1951.  Not only was that event buried, but the entire Second World War had been over for more than half a decade.  Hell, we were up to our necks in Korea and the Cold War by then. We consider 9/11 to be a paradigm shift in our understanding of the world and international relations; I don't think Pearl Harbor really could be considered that.  The United States went from isolation to openly joining the Allies, but the system of alliances throughout the world didn't really change, nor our conception of who was powerful and who was not.  That was all changed by World War II and the beginning of the Cold War.

9/11 was also a national event in a way Pearl Harbor wasn't.  Sure, World War II had a massive impact on the United States, from war rations to the huge number of casualties suffered, but Pearl Harbor itself was really limited to those living in Oahu on that particular day.  The war was national, but the event was particular.  In our case, the roles were reversed.  I can distinctly remember watching the North Tower burn and people huddled around a TV wondering how such a freak accident could occur when the second plane struck the tower and removed all doubt, horribly and instantly, from anyone's mind about what we were witnessing.  9/11 was experienced by the whole nation; the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have really not.  There are no small number of people in this nation who, if denied access to the news, would not know about those conflicts.  Rationing, war bonds, everyone knowing a casualty, black out drills, 10% of the entire population being recruited or drafted; we didn't experience those things.  The event was national, the war particular to those serving and their closest loved ones.

It seems incredibly strange to think, but in the grand scheme of things that attack may not rank very high.  It may very well be that its proper role in our thought is to be consigned to history, an event that happened and led to other somewhat relevant events but which otherwise is no longer a guiding star in the constellation of events that creates our narrative of the world.  I will not say that we "need to start looking forward rather than behind" because we are always looking forward; we look into the past to see our direction.  Maybe the financial crisis will be the truly big event that is recorded in the history books when we pass from this Earth; maybe nothing we do will be particularly remembered and this decade, if remembered at all, will be recalled only for its dullness.  I make no predictions, I only acknowledge the possibilities. 

This will be the last anniversary reflection I write upon 9/11.  In our national understanding (if such a term even makes sense), it can rest with a marble gravestone alongside Pearl Harbor and the Civil War, events which we understand happened but are no longer current with us.  Sooner than we of that generation may like to think, a new cohort of teachers will join our ranks who were not even alive when the Towers fell, when the Pentagon was struck, when a brave band of passengers brought down their own plane to stop madmen, when we were unsure when the attacks would stop, who perpetrated them, and whether life would ever return to normal.

But though I will cease memorializing the anniversary, the memories will remain with me until I die.  Whenever I hear a siren blare, even out here in the country, for the briefest of moments my heart jumps and I wonder if the world will be the same place tomorrow as images of ash and fire flash before my mind's eye. There will never be a beautiful September morning in which I don't remember sitting in English class writing an essay and having a Social Studies teacher whisper the first rumors of chaos in New York.   There will never be a clear September afternoon in which I'm not startled if there are no planes in the sky above me.

declinet autem a malo et faciat bonum inquirat pacem et persequatur eam

~1st Peter, Chapter 3, Verse 11


  1. I found this article particularly interesting - I think for no other reason than it's a viewpoint I hadn't heard before.


  2. I had not seen that before. Assuming I ever get back into my classroom with all the flooding and whatnot, I might actually show my kids that (they were kindergarteners themselves at the time). Thanks!