9/11 and the lessons of History

On the morning of Sept. 11th 2001, I was just waking up to start the workday. My wife was up and about with our infant daughter Gaelynn, making breakfast and the usual morning preparations. Things were not great, but they were not all that bad either…  that all changed in a matter of moments.

Still dozing and bleary-eyed, I heard my wife call out from the living room and I saw black smoke billowing out of the side of the south tower (I think it was the south tower) and I was struck deeply with heartfelt compassion for those involved but yet I thought that it had merely been a tragic accident…  if such an accident can be described as ‘mere.’

The first collision seemed like a mistake. A tragic mistake, but only such.

Some friends of ours who lived next door came over and we all watched unbelievingly as the second plane crashed…  and we all stood silently for a long time as the first tower, then the second, collapse into into smoking rubble.

One of the most profound things that I can remember is hearing the television news anchorman gasp, “No words,” as all of us, as a nation and people, watched thousands of our own fellow citizens perish under the worst terrorist attack it had ever known. Two national icons crushed into a smoldering ruin.

The world has not been the same since. The events of Sept. 11 have cast a shadow over everyday that has followed. America is no longer the same place it once was. So much has happened in our national life since the attacks, and sometimes it seems less like ten years ago and more like a hundred.

But I still remember vividly the emotion of that day. The uncertainty. The questions. The very real concern that more attacks were imminent. The threat of a larger war. The horror of watching all those people die. Everyone felt something like that, and everyone wanted a word of comfort and truth.

It seems little has changed.

Human beings, of course, are renowned for their ability to cope and to soldier on. We moved on, the vivid images of that day soon fade from view. Replaced with other, more insistent mundane interests of pragmatic existence.

In the times since, we have engaged ourselves in two wars…  neither of which seems to be drawing to a close anytime soon. So many of my friends and peers have returned wounded, and also a few have not returned. Such a cost. Such a price to be paid.

Remembering that day, and all the events that have followed, fills me with a pain that refuses to heal. It never truly goes away, I only distract myself from it for a time. Like a sore tooth, eventually you even forget it’s there until you bite down on it…  then all the pain comes flooding back.

This past weekend my children and I spent time watching news and documentary footage about the events leading up to, during, and after Sept. 11, 2001. My eldest was still a suckling babe when it had occurred, and the rest of my children were not yet born.

As we watched the shocking footage of two planes crashing into the World Trade Center my son asked my why it happened, why somebody drove airplanes into a skyscraper “on purpose.” Pausing for a moment to collect my thoughts, I tried to find the most straightforward and yet simple way to explain something that I still don’t understand myself.

How do I make sense of a perverse Islamic fundamentalism in such a way that I child can explain it, without couching my language in buzzwords or political rhetoric. How do I explain the historic context of all the various sides involved in the cultural animosity between Christians, Jews, and Muslims over the last couple thousand years…  or even the recent animosities in the last hundred years? How do I help my children understand the course of action by that led to this consequence?

The world they will inhabit will be different in many ways, but there are certain things that will always stay the same. For as long as there will be people, there will be discord.

And thus I fear the lessons of 9/11, like other lessons of our history, will remain unlearned for yet another generation.