Sept. 11 Taught Us, but Maybe Not the Right Things

It’s been ten years since the sunny Tuesday morning when terrorists used airliners as giant missiles, and the questions being asked as the media replay (and replay and replay) the footage of thousands of people dying in the Twin Towers and commercial airliners are, “How did 9/11 change us as a country? What have we learned?”

The first few weeks following September 11 was the only time I felt there was a true sense of unity in this country. I was only 27 at the time, going to graduate school and working, and I admittedly had never given much though to “country,” or what it meant to be a citizen of one. There was no need to think about such things if it wasn’t election season, when my role as a citizen would help determine, albeit by a miniscule fraction, who would end up leading that country.

I’d returned to the U.S. eight years earlier after having lived in Germany since the age of seven. Wherever you spend your childhood and formative years is “home,” and it continues to feel like home for some time after you leave. If it takes time for a new house to feel like “home,” imagine how long it can take for a new country to feel that way.

After eight years of living in the Midwest following my return from Germany, I was finally comfortably settled in my new home country. It no longer felt like the foreign land I would visit some summers when I’d fly from Frankfurt to Minneapolis to visit my mother. The place with the wide streets and big cars. The scary place where you’d have to be crazy to walk alone at night. The place with the big shopping malls,Taco Bell, the many flavors of bubble gum (and other delicious candies, like NERDS), and the Love Connection.

Once it felt like home, I took it for granted the way people do. I didn’t think about America. Why would I? Why would anyone give it much thought? People think about what they’re wearing that day, what might happen at school or at work, whether it’s going to rain, and what to have for dinner.

Ever since September 11, though, I’ve thought about America frequently. Not all the time, and not even most days. But frequently.

Immediately following September 11, American flag decals appeared affixed to residential windows facing the street. Politicians were wearing tiny American flags on their lapels. The flags weren’t, as I saw it, a patriotic battle cry, but a show of solidarity.

For all of my ignorance of what it meant to be a country, even I had the feeling that the American people were spiritually huddled together in a group hug. There seemed to be a meaningful awareness of the delicacy of life, the value of human connections, and what it was that, in the end, truly mattered.

And then, as if by magic, all of that beauty and unity was turned on its head and we became the venomous, frothing, spitting idiots we are today, screaming about “red” and “blue” states, “leftists” and “rightists,” and “liberals” and “conservatives.”

Anyone who’s been merely conscious during last several years is aware of the vitriol that has dominated not only the televised political climate, but also the political climate between neighbors, among bloggers, and in online chat rooms.

This began not long after 9/11, when Americans were told by some politicians and some talking heads on TV that there was only one way to feel about the war in Afghanistan, and later the war in Iraq. If we were unsure, we weren’t supporting the troops. We were un-American. We were traitors.

This was the first time I’d ever felt like America, as a result of the terrorist attacks, was consciously contributing to squashing one of its own freedoms, in effect doing exactly what we’d been told not to do: letting the terrorists “win.”

We continue to feed the monster that is this country’s shameful and childish disunity every time we categorize, name-call, finger-point, and use divisive language.

The question being asked today is one I’d truly love to know the answer to:

What have we learned?

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4 thoughts on “Sept. 11 Taught Us, but Maybe Not the Right Things

  1. We learned, on September 11th, that we were vulnerable. That’s why it hurt so much. That’s why the hurt had that surreal numbness to it, like heartbreak. We also learned we, as a people, don’t like being vulnerable very much. We don’t handle it well, can’t decide whether to hug or hit, make love or smash some furniture – eventually we do both, as friends, as couples, as families, and as a country.

    In the years since, we have bought an unprecedented number of charcoal grills, had the neighbors over, and invaded two countries. We deregulated and happinessed ourselves into a housing crisis big enough to crush our economy, then wrote a check against credit that was either too big or too small to fix it, depending on your point of view. We’ve argued a lot, sometimes about crazy things, sometimes not — all group hugs and baseball bats.

    What have we learned from that? Hopefully, that we are incredibly strong and bizarrely weak: the same thing every person who has ever loved and lost, and decided to love again, knows so very completely. Civilization, like love, can come crashing down at any time. Hannibal is always at the gates. Always. In any aftermath, we first go on to spite him, but that’s not enough. We are learning he can’t hurt us half so much as we hurt ourselves. We are learning to make him impotent again.

  2. I am so glad that there are others out there that actually feel this way. I hate that tragedy has to be the driving force for unity in our society. We will unite after a terrorist attack, a flood, a tornado, a tsunami, but won’t give a neighbor the time of day when our too self important lives get in the way. As a good friend of mine that heads up americaspeakstoday.com , I miss the 9/12 America!

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