The big news this week of course is the death of Osama Bin Laden. It triggered for me, like I’m sure it did for everyone, the “where I was at the time of the 9/11 attacks” memories.
My memories of 9/11 and the days that followed are dominated by images of brilliant blue and cloudless skies, the sky the planes flew through as they crashed into the twin towers, and the sky here, near the Wisconsin Illinois border where I live. Ten years is long enough to test the accuracy of memory, but as I recall it now, the sky here was just as blue and empty, not only the morning of 9/11 but for what seems like the rest of that September.
It was a Tuesday. I had just gotten to work in our offices in McGaw Park, near Waukegan, Illinois. Linda Lo, who at the time worked in the cubicle next to mine, asked me if I had heard anything about a jet crashing into one of the trade centers. I had not, but soon a buzz was moving across the floor, and internet screens were displaying the first crash. I can’t remember the exact order of things, but there were reports of the Pentagon being hit, the second tower, there were reports of planes targeting the White House. It soon became clear that we, the United States, were under attack by some unidentified but very real enemy.
The day went on, and we were all glued to the internet or the televisions that were set up in the cafeteria. We saw both towers fall; we saw the horrifying images of people plunging from windows to their death. We saw the hand held films of dust and debris flying everywhere and coating the Manhattan streets. We watched incredibly heroic accounts of firefighters sacrificing their own lives attempting to save others. We watched, we all watched, and we watched together.
When I got home from work, we all watched some more. I was 42 years old at the time, my wife 40, my sons Jon and Nick 16 and 12, and my daughter, Hannah, just two weeks away from her 7th birthday. The footage was graphic and traumatizing, but it was also an undeniably historic moment, the 21st century’s version of Pearl Harbor. Jon and Nick understood what was going on, we tried to explain very carefully to Hannah what was happening and shield her from some of the more graphic images. She understood most of it, but didn’t seem too traumatized, at least not any more traumatized than any of us were. When I tucked her into bed that night, Hannah, with her typical flair for the dramatic, told me to leave the light on in her room. “That way”, she said, “if something happens, they’ll know there was a little girl in here.”
Whenever I think of 9/11, there is one specific image that comes to mind. It was Thursday morning, two days after. I was driving to work on Delany Road and waiting for a red light to change before I could turn left on Highway 41. As I sat there, I looked at the car in the lane to the right of me. Behind the wheel sat a pretty woman, probably in her early thirties, crying, visibly sobbing, a wad of Kleenex in her hand. I had no idea what specifically she was crying about, I tried to imagine that maybe she had a relative who worked in the towers, maybe something on her radio had moved her, but I doubt that it was anything like that, because I felt like crying, too, and I knew that I and everyone else was dialed in to a collective sadness, a shared mourning and grief. We were all experiencing different levels of anger and fear, but the sadness was universal. We all felt it, and the woman crying behind the wheel at the stop light was for me the perfect articulation of that sadness.
For a short period, in the days immediately after we had been attacked and violated, we were bound by that sadness. In that short period, there were no Democrats or Republicans, we were all just Americans. When President Bush stood on the pile of rubble at ground zero, speaking through a megaphone and putting his arm around the shoulder of one of the firefighters, we were all moved. We were all an American family, and we ached for the loss of our brothers and sisters.
But now, ten years later, that family, like families do, has fractured and split, and we are divided. We no longer see ourselves in each others’ eyes. Instead we see something cynical, something we distrust, something we don’t recognize.
The news of Bin Laden’s death was unexpected and jolting. For ten years, as he eluded us, he drifted further and further from our consciousness. President Obama’s eloquent announcement was jarring, it was welcome, it was a relief, but it is too soon to determine if it was cathartic.
At first, when I watched the news reports of the country’s reaction, I had mixed emotions. On one hand, I felt like being out in the streets with those celebrating, as the SOB got finally got what he deserved. On the other hand, it felt a little uncomfortable watching Americans celebrate the death of an individual with such fervor. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not criticizing the US for killing him – this was not murder, it was an act of war, in response to his open attack on our nation, and there is no legitimacy to those who cry he was denied due process. It’s just that on some level, it made me uncomfortable watching U.S. citizens celebrate the killing of even this asshole – we always, rightfully I think, watched with a critical eye when radical regimes in other parts of the world behaved similarly.
But before we judge ourselves too harshly, let’s take a look at what this SOB did to us. The most obvious is the taking of thousands of innocent lives on that infamous day. If that was all, it’d probably be enough. But look a little deeper, and see what’s happened to us since then. Our economy is in tatters, and while all of our economic woes cannot be traced to 9/11 it no doubt had an impact. The airline industry has never really recovered. We are fighting two expensive wars, and while you can argue whether the wars were really related to 9/11 or not, at a minimum, 9/11 was the catalyst. Either way, as is always the case with war, there have been incredible human costs in terms of lives interrupted, damaged, and lost.
More significant than the economic cost of the terrorist attacks has been the damage to our psyche. Bin Laden planted seeds of fear and suspicion and distrust in our consciousness, manifested by the creation of the Department of Homeland Security and the naming of threat levels. We arrive at airports earlier now and we take off our shoes and have our bodies scanned. And we have debated whether or not we should torture detainees, as terms like water boarding and enhanced interrogation tactics have become part of our vocabulary. Whatever your views are on this, the fact that these debates are openly taking place in the highest levels of our government would have been unthinkable prior to 9/11.
We have also seen that short period after 9/11 where we were all Americans dissolve into increasingly competing and confrontational ideologies. Debate and respected difference of opinions have dissolved into hatred and intolerance. We categorize each other into shallow two dimensional labels. We question the motives, the intelligence and the morality of those with differing views. There is more vitriol and harsh rhetoric in the air than ever before. Some of this can definitely be traced to 9/11, and the manipulation of raw emotions by insincere leaders of both sides.
President Bush once said that the 9/11 attacks were attacks on our freedoms. I think he was right, but more specifically, I think it was an attack on our core beliefs and our cohesiveness as a nation. Now Bin Laden has been killed, and I agree with President Obama’s decision not to release the death photos that could be used by martyrs and zealots and opportunists – “that’s not us”, he said, and he’s right. But at the same time, when you look at what happened to us on 9/11 and in the years since, we are right to celebrate this moment, so long as we celebrate it as Americans, and recognize each other as brothers and sisters, not political stereotypes. If we can use this moment to bring us a little closer together and bridge some of the gaps that have developed, then this moment becomes the moment when we didn’t just kill Bin Laden, but the moment when we defeated his life’s mission, and emerge stronger in the larger, on-going attack on human dignity that his like will undoubtedly continue to wage.