Sunday, September 11, 2011

Ten years ago today . . .

My in-laws have a commemorative coffee mug that one of them picked up at the dedication of a county building here in Wichita. The date of the dedication, stamped on the mug, was September 11, 1998. I've had many a cup of coffee out of that mug, and yet I still ponder it a bit. Such is the power of the events of ten years ago that it even shapes how we think of those September 11ths that preceded it.

I decided this morning that we've had enough of this sort of thing. It is right, today and for those September 11ths to follow, to remember and reflect. But then we need to get on with the business of being Americans. I said something like that four years ago, but a lot of good that did. So, I thought I would try again, at least beginning here in my household. Well, and "here" too.

But first, I had a bit of deck-clearing to take care of. If, in all the time I've known the woman who would become the Mrs., she had ever told me, I no longer recall. So, I asked her this morning. She told me that a friend called her with the news, waking her up; she spent the rest of the day watching television, as most of us had. This morning, she asked me for my story. It was in the telling that I recalled something that happened a few days afterward, something I don't recall telling anyone before. It was the afternoon; I'd just arrived home from school and parked the car when I saw a movement in the sky. I got out and looked. It was an airplane from McConnell AFB, still ascending, heading north. There had been the complete ban on air traffic; this was the first airplane I'd seen in the sky since the 11th. There was another man in the parking lot, doing what I was doing: watching, thinking (as I confirmed when I spoke to him after it passed out of sight), "Who'd think that we, living in the Air Capital of the World, would ever just stop everything to stare at one damned plane in the air?" It was one of those moments whose resonances just kept travelling, travelling, never seeming to reach a limit. It's difficult, still, to convey what that felt like, such was (and is) its surreal quality.

In some ways, to me the entire past ten years feel like that very strange, displaced minute spent on my apartment's parking lot, watching that airplane, wondering where it was going, wondering whether it was going to blow up as we watched. My memories of life in this nation before September 11, 2001 are just as vivid as those of the decade since. But this semester, I have students who were 2nd-graders ten years ago. A few years hence, and many of my students will have no conscious memory of that other time. All the more reason, I figure, to stop living in this defensive crouch: it's been bad enough that all of us have had to live this way for ten years; why keep on, until our muscles atrophy, until us old-timers are reduced to saying, "Ah, yes: I remember when we could stand . . . "

This is not living. It has eaten away at our (largely justified) sense of ourselves as a people and the health of our official and unofficial institutions. No one can or should say that living like this gives value and meaning to the lives of those who died, that day and since: That would be the worst desecration imaginable of the memory of their lives.

9/11 is not the Ultimate Cause for what ails us, I know, but our response to it, stretched out over a decade now, certainly hasn't helped matters. (Surely, the legacy of 9/11 lurks in matters such as this, for example.) I'm certain it has contributed to our diminished sense of what we are capable of as a nation, and even our sense of generosity to our own people, never mind the peoples of the world. If we continue to live as we have, then the terrorists have indeed won, and by our own collective hand.

I am grumpy, as you may be able to tell. It's for that reason that I am glad that the 10-year anniversary fell on a Sunday. In church today, our prayers were for the lives of all those who have died or otherwise committed their lives in service to the nation in the wake of that day, but also for the hope that we not continue to be consumed or paralyzed by our collective grief and fear.

I have yammered long enough. I will just say that I long for the day when this day will be one that, when it arrives, we'll think back on it, we'll remember what those days and years were like, and we'll be able to say, Yes, but now we are stronger and better, we are more like we were before that day than we were after it.

* * *

For a much more eloquent expression of remembrance and re-dedication, please read Leon Wieseltier's remarks at The New Republic's 9/11 commemoration at the Kennedy Center. (Hat-tip: Russell)

1 comment:

AshleyC said...

First of all, thanks for linking from fbook---it got me here, unlike the emails I often pass over in the hustle of my days.

Well said. I too, was thinking about how grateful I am that today fell on a Sunday as my pastor was speaking about how it takes so little to create fear compared to the effort and time it takes to build and repair etc. So we spent time praying for the "usual," but also praying and speaking words of hope and encouragement over specific people. I was really please with that stance. (We were instructed to think of two people and the third to be ourselves).

I meant to ask my 6-year-old what she did or didn't know about any of 9/11. I didn't. Perhaps I will another year...