I have no personal frame of reference for the tragedy of 9/11. Like many others, I was safely at work in an office in middle America when I heard the news – the initial reports that some sort of small plane had apparently flown into one of the towers, a terrible accident – only to find myself glued to the television as the horrific events began to unfold. I didn’t know anyone in either of the towers, to my knowledge, so I had no loved ones to frantically call, to worry about, or to later mourn. There was no immediate Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon exercise for me, either. There was no I know someone who has a cousin who works on the 14th floor that would somehow make the events more personal. And yet, there was no way to feel isolated from the devastation of the day. It was a horrifying act, certainly, but one made more horrifying because we were actually watching it happen, all while being completely unable to do anything to stop it.
In the years since the attacks, much has been written about that now infamous day and all of the days that would follow. For a week now, I’ve been reading a lot of commemorative pieces, written on the eve of the tenth anniversary, which try to bring a sense of perspective to the day that can only be found with some distance. People seem to want to talk about it now more than ever before. There are endless stories in the news, many focusing on the survivors or the families of those lost, on the first responders, on the politicians who would raise and fall as a result, the rebuilding efforts at Ground Zero, and on the ways that our nation has changed – and maybe, not changed – since.
There’s an interesting piece by Kurt Anderson in the current TIME magazine titled “Terror’s Half Life.” In it, Anderson suggests that despite all of our day-that-changed-America-forever proclamations, for many of us – perhaps especially those of us, like myself, without a personal frame of reference – fundamental change hasn’t happened.
For the several thousand Americans who died that day, of course, and the thousands more killed or wounded in the resulting wars and for the families and friends of all of them, the existential consequences of 9/11 could not be larger. But its impact on the ways most of us live our lives? Not so much. It was a jolt that altered the course of history spectacularly, but it has not, for better and for worse, transformed the American people. Terror, we discovered, has a half-life.
After the attacks, experts predicted epidemic levels of posttraumatic stress. But the number of people suffering psychological problems was vanishingly small — just six months later, a fraction of 1%, even among Manhattanites. In the short term, in fact, the attacks actually made most of us happier. According to polls in the fall and winter after 9/11, a huge majority of Americans, between 57% and 72%, suddenly thought the country was headed in the right direction. We felt united in our horror and confusion and determination. But within six months, that spike of hopefulness had evaporated. On one hand, war fever began rising, and on the other, everyday life in America returned to normal.
And so I’m left to wonder, are there ways that we should have changed, a lasting change, but didn’t? I’m not even talking about on a national level, and certainly not on a political level, but personally. Have we – have I? – missed an opportunity to make a better way forward, a change birthed out of the ashes of such tragedy?
What better time than now. In tribute.
We remember by doing.