Memory and Witness in a Post-9/11 World
Like witnesses at a traffic accident, everybody remembers that singular, defining day differently yet, at the same time, everyone has similar recollections of that morning in their memories and dreams. Hard to imagine the thoughts, feelings and memories of those at ground zero and beyond in New York or the people on those doomed planes, flying into buildings, crashing into the green earth, ripping into the Pentagon. We have stories about the events, the people who survived them, those in proximity or close by in shock.
An amazing number of people recall the quality of the morning just before the first plane struck—an incredibly blue sky, here in Washington and there in New York. All the memories will come back throughout this week and on Sunday when the memorial in New York is dedicated—there will be concerts, the sound of taps, exhibitions, commemorations, marches, and the names of the victims inscribed, recited, going out into the air of whatever weathered day there will be.
I remember a woman who was huddled around a television monitor at the Mayflower Hotel in downtown Washington as one of the towers collapsed in a cloud of improbable dust. There was a collective gasp from the group around the monitor, people were holding their hands to their mouths, or rubbing their heads tilted backward. The woman, who was here for a medical convention was thin and stood ramrod still and said, to no one in particular, “I woke upon in one world this morning, and I’m going to home to a completely different, changed world tonight.”
It was one of the more prophetic, accurate statements—no doubt, thought, felt and said by others all over the world in some form or another—of the day. And here we are, ten years later, and the wounds still bleed, the shocks still come, the understanding not very much enlarged, our casualty list tripled, the danger still there, the war, undeclared but also unending. We—and the rest of the world—remain in harm’s way, vulnerable to the plots, schemes, and attacks of terrorism, terrorists, terror itself, states which support terrorism and terrorist organizations not yet named. They are not Allah’s children, nor the heart and soul of Islam, but rather they come from the most hateful, desperate and fanatic corners and perversions of faith.
We live in a different, still-drastically-changing world. In the aftermath of 9/11, we launched an attack, with the full sympathy of the world, on al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan, declared a victory in a war that was just beginning, then proceeded, with much, much less clarity and certainty to invade Iraq. The outcome was muddy: Saddam Hussein was captured and eventually executed; al Qaeda led a bloody insurgency against American soldiers which was eventually quelled at considerable cost, including the public standing of President Bush. Thousands died including, at last count, 4,442 American troops. We are still fighting in Afghanistan, against both al Qaeda and a resurgent Taliban, and at latest count, 1,584 Americans have been killed there.
After years of non-stop efforts, our forces, specifically an elite Navy Seal team, tracked down and killed Osama Bin Laden, the reviled, elusive mastermind behind the 9/11 attacks this year, sparking a soundtrack of celebration, but not much change.
What we have seen are attempted bombings, the massacre in Fort Hood and terrorist acts in London and Spain, India and Indonesia. We’ve seen continued bombings in Iraq and Afghanistan where the roads are lined with IEDs. We have seen entirely too many of our brave warriors coming home, wearing the very latest prosthetics. They are a part of our landscape, our memorial services, and the services for the honored dead.
We have a whole new government department—Homeland Security—we have a new airport security system which takes every ounce of pleasure out of flying and has been accompanied by controversy, argument and politics.
I think we woke up on 9/l2 with the realization that the world was not a safe place, that we as a people were hated by another group of people who characterized us in ways we did not recognize and could not understand to the point that they envisioned the plan they executed. We mourned, we dealt with anthrax, and I remember a young girl across the street from our house sitting by herself with a lit candle one evening.
If you go to the website for the New York memorial, you can call up the dead, the voices of their loved ones, the details of their lives, the faces in their photographs. We individualize our tragedies in this country, even one as large, as devastating as 9/11, savor every face and time lost on earth, as a kind of act of love. It is something the perpetrators of the acts of atrocity that day—the men with the knives and box cutters and screaming commands on the planes—could not do, they rid themselves completely of imagination and empathy and did what they did gripped by a sick, sad vision that they would be rewarded in paradise.
Sunday, their victims will rise up again as ghosts of their lives, the dead of 9/11, still alive, and bringing with them the memories of a lost world.