Commentary: Monday is September 11th. It is a date like December 7, and perhaps November 22 or August 6. Sixteen years later, it cannot just be said. By 2033 will young folks say it as easily as they say November 22 or August 6?
Memories force themselves on anyone older than 19. After that surge of vivid memory, we reflect.
That morning I was in the Library of Congress. Someone suddenly announced the library was closing. Didn't announce there'd been an attack, and that Congress – a block away, connected by underground tunnels – might be a target. But word spread.
The traffic jam was exceptional. Even on my motorcycle it was tough going. For days, military helicopters roared above us. At supper that night, from a rooftop restaurant, I could see smoke still rising from the Pentagon. Early the next morning I rode to the monuments. Streets empty. Just cops and soldiers. I photographed the Lincoln Memorial at dawn, sans sightseers and joggers, just Lincoln, long shadows, and a janitor pushing a broom across a huge marble step.
The U.S. then attacked Afghanistan. For no particular reason, we also attacked Iraq, which had nothing to do with Osama bin Laden and (despite Saddam Hussein's viciousness) was an obstacle to the spread of Iran's influence.
Neither war has ended. Will we still have soldiers there in 2033?
It was obvious that destroying Iraq would create more terrorists; and it has. The “nation” had been shaped to suit the British. Ethnic and religious tensions would obviously explode into civil war if Saddam's strong and ugly hand were removed. And the Russians had demonstrated the difficulties of war in Afghanistan.
We were in the throes of hysteria. The destruction of the World Trade Center shocked us. Like someone who's been mugged by people from a different ethnic group, we had to struggle with the temptation to assume all Muslims (or all Arabs, or all foreigners) meant us harm. It wasn't so. ISIL and most of the terrorism carried out in the name of Islam during the past 16 years has victimized fellow Muslims. Meanwhile millions of Muslims live among us as quietly and productively and “American” as anyone else. They worship the same God as Jews and Christians. (Quran or Bible, old words in each can be misread to authorize terrible things.)
We are sensibly more alert. Modern technologies make us vulnerable. Anywhere, anytime, we could be attacked by some deranged person. Modern weapons mean such attacks can be deadlier.
Most others around the world have it worse. Most have never formed the false sense of security our wealth and geographic isolation have given us.
September 11th was and is a test. Heroic efforts by people risking their lives to save others was a great start to passing; but the longer-term test is to love our country enough to hold to its ideals when the going gets tough.
We have been proud that our democracy served as a model throughout the world, and that we were a refuge for the persecuted and the unfree. Justice and tolerance are easier when you're wealthier than anyone else and seem immune to attack. They're harder to maintain when your pockets are emptier and your world seems dangerous.
Is it easy to maintain our ideals? No. Maybe it's easier to circle the wagons and hate anyone outside. Harder to extend a hand to strangers. Well, marriage, child-rearing, and living a good life take work too. But they reward us. Let the heroism some showed then inspire us all to go above and beyond in little ways.