Eleven years on
I traveled a lot, back in 2001. On the morning of the 9/11 attacks, in the hour when America realized it faced more than just an errant Cessna blowing into the side of a skyscraper, my mother called my office, frantic to make sure I wasn’t on a plane. The front desk told her they weren’t sure if I was out of town or not. It took a few minutes for them to find me. I was indeed in the office, and was part of a mad scramble to hook up an old TV set so we could all watch the news and figure out what the hell was going on. My mom said those were among the worst minutes of her life, waiting for my voice to come on the line and assure her I was okay.
Two months to the day after 9/11, my mother died of a cerebral hemorrhage. It came out of nowhere and struck her down without warning. I looked at her X-rays and saw the angel of death for the second time. I first glimpsed his outline in the smoke above New York City, spreading dark wings against a beautiful blue sky.
There comes a moment when pain and loss threaten to consume us, and we must renew our determination to carry on. America and I both passed that moment in the fall of 2001. And if you carry on, there is always healing. Even the most awful pain fades with time, and those we have lost would urge us to embrace life, rather than losing our way among memories. We honor them by living. We gather a lifetime’s worth of joy and wonder, to present as gifts at our ultimate, inevitable reunion.
Eleven years on, things that seemed crystal-clear in the aftermath of 9-11 have grown complicated again. Great debates have resumed, after brief suspensions. Decisions made in a time of mortal fear are retroactively dissected. We worry that our wounds might have healed too well, and the pain might have grown too dull. Clocks turn, and calendar pages fall away. A bit more effort is necessary to relive unforgettable moments.
The memorials for 9/11 have grown a bit more muted, with fewer high officials in attendance. A generation born after the attacks learns about them in school. A generation that dimly remembers a few days of anxiety and confusion from childhood takes its first steps toward careers, leadership, and raising families of their own. The generation before them pauses to retrieve hallowed memories from the vaults of the past, and renew vows made when they watched a hundred feet of ash and dust roll through the streets of New York… or perhaps the much less widely-circulated footage of people leaping to their deaths, to escape a fiery inferno.
The past has countless editors, shaping remembrance in different ways. The hills and valleys of present time offer different vantage points for the review of shared history. That is the nature of Man, and while we have programmed some astonishing machines, they cannot in turn rewrite our nature.
But let all the world remember that Osama bin Laden and his band of degenerates were wrong about America. We have covered the battlefields of the War on Terror with courage and gallantry, from forlorn mountains and perilous city streets to the carpeted aisles of airliners. We ran into mountains of collapsing concrete and steel, in the hope of finding one more survivor among the flames. We beat them around the world. We beat them aboard United 93, on the very morning they launched their cowardly attack.
And don’t let anyone waste a single breath on September 11 – today or in the future – talking about “tragedy” or “disaster.” It was an attack. It was murder. Let us at least agree to remember that, always, as we live in the future given to us the heroes of 9/11, whether they fell in New York on that fearsome day, or upon foreign shores in the years that followed. They would understand how eleven years of healing made our wounds a bit less painful. They would also understand that some of us, maybe most of us, who lived through 9/11 will never make it to September 12, in any year to come, without a few tears. Not all of those tears flow from sorrow.