As the 20th anniversary of September 11thapproaches and the retrospective pieces startup, we’ll hear again about the weather. How blue the sky was that day. How it started out as a picture-perfect Fall day until the sky turned hazy with smoke, ash, and loose-leaf paper.
It is now and was then a contrast not only of the bitter scenes of a late Tuesday morning, but an allegory of American innocence and vulnerability: a blue, beautiful, open day pierced by death and depravity. I mention this because how we remind ourselves of things matters.
9/11 is becoming history. We’re thirty years away from the History Channel box set “9/11 Remastered,” and instead of revered World War II vets it’ll be the few remaining firefighters responding to interview questions, taking time between words to breathe with effort through damaged lungs.
I’ve noticed a trend over the past few years – driven surely by partisan animus but not primarily so – that looks back on our brief era of exceptional unity with shades of negativity. That looks askance at how we bonded together in visceral displays of patriotism as evidence of jingoism or groupthink. Some see that era as maudlin or even look back with embarrassment.
Others claim we were manipulated, following in lockstep as the elites grew the security state and consolidated power. Or put forth simple notions about the terrorist’s rationale, oftentimes accompanied by the claim that the attack was blowback – overinflated, or that we funded Bin Laden in the ’80s (which is incorrect). The historians will, I think, amend the record in sufficient time as it comes to those specific intentions and causes and effects.
So, 9/11 is passing into history, but it’s not there yet. And the task before us now, twenty years out, is to correct the record as it relates to that season of rock-solid unity and the outpouring of grief and anger that pulsed across the land. Once corrected, a more interesting question comes into play on this Independence Day of ours and in the next two months, given how large the idea of “twenty years since” looms.
For the written record: how we united in the weeks and months after 9/11 was fully genuine and real and good. That was us at our best. It wasn’t jingoism, a word implying artificiality. It was raw and natural anger. Those speeches, the rhetoric used, were not overdone. Nor were the ceremonies or the bullhorn or the Tony Blair visit or the congressional remembrances: the correct and accurate response was all that sentiment and anger. It was to kill those bastards, it was to shout from megaphones, and it was to tie yellow ribbons around whatever we damn could.
So back in those united days, the weeks and months as we recaptured our sense of national agency. In the time of First Pitches and flyovers, those people shared a sense of clarity and unity. If that was us at our best, the more interesting question and a reasonable one to ask is: what would they think of us now? Twenty years later.
Or given that those people were – maybe are – us: how would past us judge current us?
My bet? Harshly. If we can please untie and take off our partisan gloves, worn-in and form-fitting as they’ve become, and for a moment understand something together. Our failure is collective. We failed, across presidents of both parties, to marshal a sufficient plan for Afghanistan, or to rally the people for it. We failed, again together, in the financial crisis of 2008 that still colors much of our mindset.
We are failing now to prevent new, equivalent bubbles from forming, and appointing to each our own villains as they do. Most basically, we have failed to grow up and even just pay for the expanding functions we are asking the government to perform.
It is natural for us to pull together in the face of a foreign threat, and it’s natural for a big, diverse continental country like ours to drift away at times. But wait. We are fractured beyond what any of us could have imagined. And we are caught in a fever that if not somehow broken will trap America in a spin cycle of domestic conflict it cannot survive united. Yes, it happens fast. History does.
Today we celebrate our independence, a degree of freedom almost unimaginable. One that even in our daily lives is easy to mentally disassociate from given the natural human tendency to presume order. We’ll celebrate that independence as we did twenty years ago, before 9/11, and the year after when fireworks sales skyrocketed.
We write our own future, but our remarkable freedom is matched by an equally remarkable accountability. It’s just us. And for my generation, we are the grownups now. We are responsible for the outcomes. There are no more excuses; the ledger reveals.
Our forebears made a declaration of political independence. Then they and generations to follow supplied and defended a naturally abundant canvas across which an infinite number of futures are possible. And this is what we’ve done with it.
So how would they judge us? I submit first they would evince shock at where we are, a following disappointment, and then more of that anger. And as they shouted “how dare you, how dare this be your legacy,” their anger would be just as righteous.