When it happened, I was sitting at work, much as I will be today. I had a wife, a 2 year old and a 1 year old. As it would turn out, I wasn’t personally–directly–affected by the tragic events on 9/11. That puts me in the majority. Yet, like everyone, my life and that of my wife and young daughters was forever changed. Our innocence and naivete was lost. At least that’s what we thought at that time. Yet, 11 years later, I think we are forgetting.
This election year I’ve heard the Bush Administration referred to derisively as one that brought us “two wars”. Lumping Afghanistan, which not so long ago was considered “the good war”, with Iraq, the supposed “bad war”. In Afghanistan we directly responded to those who had attacked our nation by killing innocents in cold blood. When did it become a bad war, one that was lumped in with the supposedly really “bad war”? Probably when politicians thought they could score some partisan points by tapping into America’s war fatigue. Americans aren’t a patient people. Many think we’ve lost our way in Afghanistan. We beat the Taliban and Bin Laden is dead. Isn’t it time to come home? Except the Taliban is back and who knows what they’ll do when we leave. There’s no easy answer and it’s ugly. We don’t like ugly, so we ignore it. Unless it’s a convenient talking point. But we’re still there and our men and women are fighting and dying. There doesn’t seem to be a clear end game anymore. We owe our warriors that much, at the very least.
While we sent our fighting men and women off to war, we vowed to buckle down on the home front. We made sacrifices to be more secure. To be sure, not everyone was keen on such sacrifice: we were reminded that the loss of freedom for the sake of security wasn’t worth it. It probably isn’t, but many–perhaps most–Americans will take security over freedom. Now? Now we have a government security force inhabiting our airports that seems more like a jobs retention program bent on enforcing politically correct searches rather than actually protecting us from those who would do us harm. They put on a good show of keeping us safer. But is the cost of admission worth it?
And what about Ground Zero? It seems like if it had all happened in the 1940’s or ’50’s, we’d have had something bigger and bolder built there by now. Instead the project is stalled mid-construction. All after a years-long debate over what to do with the site. Nike’s “Just Do It” motto used to seem like one appropriate to America in general. Now it’s more like “Can We Do It? Or Will it Offend Someone?”
My kids know of 9/11, but there’s no way their generation will ever be able to conceptualize the tragedy. It will be a piece of history, like Vietnam was for us Gen Xers, and it will end up being a heavily politicized piece of history, at that. Again, like Vietnam. Nuance will be lost, the role of contingency in well-meaning, if flawed, intentions instituted through policy will be glossed over as we assign black hats and white hats to our American politicians. We could very well lose sight of the fact that there actually was an evil that brought this to our shores. They made the choice to kill innocents. We didn’t “bring this on ourselves”, they brought it to us. And we gave it back the best we could.
What have we learned from all of this? That when roused we will kick your ass if you screw with us. But we’ll also turn to, or allow, government–often with good intentions–to impose more barriers and inconveniences on us for the sake of security. We’ve learned that the public has little stomach for drawn out conflicts. That is probably a good thing as it raises the bar higher before we again enter into war. But it also is worrisome that, after we are committed, too many people may conclude that the reality show called “war” had a good run, but now it’s time for it to be cancelled whether the plot lines had been tied up or not.
Maybe forgetting is a good thing. Maybe, as 9/11 becomes lumped in with Pearl Harbor or even “Remember the Maine”, our nation will revert to a more innocent time. Perhaps even a more prosperous time. But hopefully not a more naive time. Danger is always out there. We have to be on the lookout. That, I hope, is at least the one lesson we never forget.