Holding Onto Memories of 9/11

A personal reflection on what was—and what could have been

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My daughter Katrina was three months and three days old when the first plane hit the World Trade Center. I was in San Francisco that morning. I got a call from a colleague who woke me to ask if I thought we’d still be meeting that day. I didn’t understand his question until I turned on the TV—and soon saw a plane hit the second tower and watched glaze-eyed as the building collapsed into a cloud of rubble. My colleagues and I did meet that day—at the hotel bar to watch the continuing coverage and try to comprehend what the hell was going on.

I couldn’t fly home to Los Angeles as planned—in those days after the attack planes were not flying—so I rented a car to get back to my family as quickly as I could. I felt badly that my wife was home alone with a nearly newborn and a four-year-old, struggling with as many questions as I had, if not more. I felt badly that our baby girl had just arrived to a world wracked with death and destruction. In the subsequent days, months and years, we took it as our responsibility to be sure the children didn’t see those horrific images replayed over and over on the TV screen. Once seen, they can’t be unseen.

I remember sitting in an LA bar with a good friend from South Africa about a week after the towers fell. I remember telling him that I was hopeful that the horror of that day would be a reason that the world could come together, that Americans would recognize that what we have in common is more powerful than what divides us. Grasping for evidence, I mentioned the headline in Le Monde the day after 9/11: Nous sommes tous Américains/We are all Americans.

Yes, I’m an idealistic person, and my friend, a keen observer of people who made his living as an actor, looked at me with barely restrained skepticism. His eyebrow arched, he uttered with a wry smile: “Really?”

This was before the start of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, before Shock and Awe, before the Patriot Act, before secret CIA torture sites, before waterboarding, Gitmo and Abu Ghraib, before confusing orange and red terror threat levels from a gargantuan new Department of Homeland Security, before a fear-fueled rise in Muslim hate crimes. This was before Dick Cheney slipped in and out of undisclosed locations, praised torture as “enhanced interrogation techniques” and lied about Weapons of Mass Destruction. Before George Bush stood near a banner in 2003 declaring “Mission Accomplished” and before another 3,424 Americans were killed in Iraq. And before over 335,000 civilians died violent deaths as a direct result of the so-called War on Terror, all in the name of rooting out evil and keeping America safe.

In a newly released Washington Post/ABC poll, the changing attitudes of Americans over the last 20 years since 9/11 are stark. In 2002, a year after the attack, 55 percent of Americans said that the country had changed for the better. Now only 33 percent think so. Among liberals today: 59 percent say the events changed the country for the worse.

Here’s how journalist and historian Garrett M. Graff sees the Bush/Cheney calculation that expanded the US goal beyond stopping Al Qaeda from committing other US attacks and capturing and killing Osama bin Laden:

“The War on Terror has weakened the nation—leaving Americans more afraid, less free, more morally compromised, and more alone in the world. A day that initially created an unparalleled sense of unity among Americans has become the backdrop for ever-widening political polarization…Rather than recognizing that an extremist group with an identifiable membership and distinctive ideology had exploited fixable flaws in the American security system to carry out the 9/11 attacks, the Bush administration launched the nation on a vague and ultimately catastrophic quest to rid the world of ‘terror’ and ‘evil.’”

My daughter Katrina, now 20, tells me most of her friends don’t feel as connected to 9/11 as they do to the killing of Osama bin Laden. That makes sense: They would have been 10 years old then. She remembers in middle school seeing a baby photo of a friend born Sept. 11, 2000, taken by her parents on her first birthday, with the crash happening in real-time on the TV behind her.

Here’s how she described her own evolution about this terrible time (beyond the stories that I would share with her):

“As I started to get older, I really tried to understand the events of that day. I felt as though every year I learned something new: There was another plane that went down in Pennsylvania, a plane was supposed to hit the Pentagon, it was terrorists who did it, it was actually suicide bombers who hijacked the planes, the list goes on. I remember seeing the images, one in particular, of a man jumping out of the towers. I was shaken to my core. This man jumped right out of the building; he knew he was going to die. And in that picture, in that moment, he seemed so peaceful.”

She and I visited the Newseum in Washington, DC, when it was still open, where we watched news footage from 9/11 and listened to a variety of journalists trying to make sense of it all. Our whole family has visited the deeply touching waterfall memorial at Ground Zero.

As time goes on, the memories of the nearly 3,000 souls that perished that day will inevitably continue to fade. But it remains up to each of us to do what we can to help revive the more loving and less fearful country that was lost in the failed aftermath.

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