Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Remembering September 11, 2001

When I was coming of age, one was often asked, "where were you when President Kennedy was shot?" For us that bleak November day was a defining moment for our generation. It was the time when innocence was lost, when the world changed into a less trustworthy place. Conspiracy rumors sputtered for years afterwards, the times were unsettled. For previous generations it was the attack on Pearl Harbor or the Stock Market Crash of 1929. For many today their most horrific time was when the events of September 11, 2001 occurred. It remains a day of chaos, incredulity, and tragedy. Few Americans were left untouched either directly or indirectly. As mentioned by President Obama during remarks at the Sunday Kennedy Center memorial concert, who can ever forget the first responders filing into the burning Twin Towers as others were escaping, then suddenly faced with death? Who can deny their selfless response to a sworn duty? I sense that most readers here could mention feeling disbelief when both towers fell. Who did not cry when the towers entombed so many ordinary people? Who has not felt the pain of survivors mourning and looking for loved ones? I know I was moved by the posters and photos on fences and lampposts. I could not help but feel a comradeship with the grief of the families who spent days not knowing but being afraid to find out what happened to their special person. Who has not marveled at the bravery of those passengers who took down a plane in Pennsylvania, rather than see others gravely harmed? Who has not seen themselves in the government and military workers at their desks in the Pentagon, who were in just the wrong place when the planes hit? These victims were all just regular folks, such as you or me, living their lives, most trying to do their best, but cut down too soon in a most improbable manner. I postulate that is why this is so close to us, that these events were not happening in extraordinary times or places.

Yet as we look back, now only ten years later, it seems to have been an event that was both near and far. Near enough to still bring tears, yet far enough away to allow some reflection. Near enough to show rough scars, distant enough to demonstrate some healing. Sunday, on the tenth anniversary, memorials were unveiled and speeches of healing were made. Many performers shared musical tributes; two I heard were Paul Simon singing Sounds of Silence and a flutist who played Amazing Grace. Both were tunes of stark simplicity. In many ways television is at its best with commemorative events. We have the kaleidoscopic view as well as the historic view paired with tapes from that day. Looking back we can see with different and hopefully wiser eyes as our perspective is tinted with time. There was sorrow, horror, anger and rancor then. Some of that remains yet with us. As the anniversary becomes more distant, what will remain in our collective memories. What will we tell succeeding generations? I hope we will focus more on bravery and survival, rather than terror and fear. What will we teach the children? Towns across the country have received portions of the building remnants to incorporate into local memorials. The Newseum in DC has a powerful photo exhibit and video from producers and reporters on that fateful day.

Many spoke of how the events in 2001 united us as a nation. Congressional Democrats and Republicans together stood on the steps of the Capitol, their voices raised in unison, as they sang patriotic tunes. The country united behind the President who declared war on terror. We stood together and spoke of our desire to move forward and not give in to fear. The almost three thousand men, women and children who died as a result of the plane crashes are not to be forgotten. Across this country memorials continue to bring people together in solemn and simple ceremonies in towns and cities large and small. Many have said they treasured the unity of the post September 11 period. Americans in foreign venues reported being stopped on the street by nationals who wanted to express their condolences. A friend, who was stranded in China when the airports were closed, described the kindness of strangers given to her just because she was an American. The world then shared our pain and joined in our sorrow.

Yet it should be mentioned that much has changed since terror came to our shores. We have fewer freedoms, our complacency is lost each time we remove our shoes at an airport or have our bags searched on the Metro. The world which shared our sorrow and supported us in Afghanistan -- when we searched for Bin Laden -- turned away when our country went into a misguided war in Iraq. Yet as a nation we have stood behind our armed forces as they went bravely off to war and returned, some 5,000 dead from Iraq, more thousands in Afghanistan (all in all, so many are so young). Many more return maimed or brain damaged. What has been the price of these wars in both money and in our self image? Hopefully we soon can say we will be out of both countries and wage no more war there. Now also the mastermind Bin Laden is dead and his organization is in shambles, yet we cannot cease vigilance. However, what is the long-term cost to our democracy, for our safety? Freedom isn't free, say some, but how do we measure its cost?

Sunday, I attended an interfaith memorial service at a local Muslim Community Center as hundreds in my town joined in a spirit of community and brotherhood. People of many nationalities and religions, (Jews, Christians, Muslims and others), offered words for hope and read from religious works with common themes, from prophets writing long ago. Many spoke of peace and understanding and common dreams for a better world. Elected officials mentioned the need for a community to come together, while the religious leaders spoke of the need for all peoples to have peace. Obviously we need more than words. We need hearts and minds to change. We need a government not ever eager to go to war. We need messages of intolerance and actions of hatred to cease. I remember the words of a song, "let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me" -- will this ever happen in our lifetime?

Let me hear from you -- how can we start to achieve peace? What did you learn from this day of remembrance?

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