15 Years into the Post-9/11 World
By September 8, 2016 0 862•
Note: a list of Washington-area 9/11 commemorative events follows this editorial.
It has been 15 years now since that bright-blue-sky Tuesday morning when our world changed inexplicably, unfathomably, shockingly. When planes flew into the World Trade Center twin towers in New York and made grisly, fiery ashes of them. When another crashed into the Pentagon and yet another made a flaming pyre in a field outside the small town — picket fences, parades, picnics — of Shanksville, Pennsylvania.
Ever since, Americans as a people have been trying and failing to move into the past, to the Monday before that Tuesday and to the times when we thought we understood to a reasonable degree the world we lived in and who we were and where we stood in the scheme of things, when we felt with some justification safe in the world.
Ever since, Americans have tried to move forward from that day, not so much to get past it as if were a mere death in the family, but as a way to get our bearings and footing. We are 15 years into the post-9/11 world, and very little is the same in our lives.
Those of us who were half-grown or fully-grown people and who were alive on that day are not the same. We are all 15 years older, the children turned into millennials, the teens uncertain young adults, the young adults grappling with middle age, the middle-aged older, and often old, survivors.
We are the witnesses, in a way, to the big and small changes brought about by 9/11, that day that began with a morning that seemed like a bouquet, unaccountably beautiful. We continued on in the aftermath of the attacks with memories hard to erase, like bomb shadows. We remember the plumes of black smoke rising from the Pentagon, which became an image that announced the state of things on one of our Georgetowner covers. I remember people walking in the streets trying to get their overloaded cellphones to work and people huddled around a television in the Hay-Adams watching one of the towers fall, and coming back to the Pentagon to see the black hole left in the building.
And I saw the town of Shanksville, where a memorial was blooming, drowning in wreaths amid the normalcy of the landscape.
It was for everyone something unprecedented, not just in its scope, but in the fact that everyone was an intimate witness to almost everything, the hundreds of firemen and police officers disappearing, the chaplain on the ground, the planes being swallowed. We had never seen any images like these happen in America in real time.
I talked to firemen — a Georgetown unit was one of the first at the Pentagon site — and security experts and politicians, the mayor of Washington and our neighbors and loved ones. We had joined that great 20th-century community of generations of citizens in other countries, people who had experienced a jolting sense of insecurity, now in the 21st century of wanton, irrational terror.
Our lives have changed; we submit to searches at airports and long lines and discomfiture, which make flying something to be almost dreaded. We look at people differently if they look different now. To some degree, except perhaps for the 9/11-memory-free young, gatherings on the Mall, games in arenas, shows in theaters are chancy ventures now, as are marathon races and playgrounds, nightclubs, schools and political rallies, not to mention train stations and airports, even churches. We have gleaned this from television, from wars and explosions witnessed in our world of tablets, screens large and small.
We think, not yet with obsession, but nevertheless, we think we are not safe.
Our political discourse has changed, clanging with rage, outrage, fear, echoing directly backward to that Tuesday morning.
Our two candidates for president were part of that world that day. Hillary Clinton was the U.S. senator from New York, lately the first lady of the United States. Donald Trump fancied himself one of the most important citizens of New York City, and even now still imagines seeing Muslims in New Jersey celebrating by the thousands.
Only this week, NBC held a security and foreign affairs forum in which Clinton and Trump talked about (if not exactly debated) their approaches to keeping the United States safe, Clinton promising to erode and destroy ISIS/ISIL by any number of approaches except boots on the ground, Trump promising to destroy ISIS/ISIL totally and quickly after his first month in office, thus committing the United States to a war, a notion no one seemed to want to challenge.
Security and the Islamic State — which in formal ways did not exist 15 years ago, although the perpetrators of 9/11, Al Qaeda and its late leader Osama Bin Laden, did — are the panic-button words of this 2016 campaign. Since that time, the United States embarked on a war against the Taliban in Afghanistan, and briefly triumphed, and on a bigger war in Iraq, which it is safe to say would not have occurred in a world in which 9/11 did not happen.
ISIS or ISIL — with its implacable trail of blood and atrocities and acts of terror — has since become both perpetrator and symbol of our worst fears. It lives in our dreams, and we live in a world it inhabits as a threat, like earthquakes and tsunamis, of which there have been many since then.
In the process, our political language and discourse and contests have managed, through the presidencies of George W. Bush and Barack Obama, the improbably first African American president of the United States, to become irrationally divided. In our heads and hearts, we live in separate places, and fear each other more than tolerate, let alone love, one another.
That blue Tuesday morning still haunts us. In the course and discourse of this presidential campaign, 9/11 seems once again vividly real, not as a time when we came together as country and countrymen, but as a time of shock, grief and loss, and the steady advance of divisiveness. Today, our better angels seem poised to take flight and flee.
Arlington Memorial 5K Run On Sept. 10, beginning at the Crystal City Doubletree Hotel, 300 Army Navy Drive in Arlington, Virginia, the Arlington Police, Fire and Sheriff departments are hosting the annual 9/11 Memorial 5K. The fee is $25, with the proceeds going to the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, Pentagon Memorial Fund and Shadow Warriors Project. For details, visit arlington911race.com.
National Days of Service On Sept. 10 and 11, thousands of United We Serve volunteers will clean local parks and playgrounds, give food to the hungry and participate in other volunteer efforts. Register at Woodlawn Cemetery, 4611 Benning Road SE, or at woodlawn.kintera.org.
Arlington Remembers At 9:30 a.m., there will be a wreath-laying at the Courthouse Plaza flagpoles, 2100 Clarendon Blvd., in Arlington. Arlington County Police and Firefighters were the Pentagon’s first responders on 9/11, and the event is in tribute and memory to their courageous acts and efforts.
Moment of Silence Arlington National Cemetery will hold a moment of silence at 9:37 a.m. for the 184 lives lost in the tragic events of 9/11. American flags will be hung from overpasses and buildings across Arlington County for “Flags Across Arlington” in memory.
9/11 Unity Walk Interfaith Conference of Metropolitan Washington is hosting a Unity Walk down Massachusetts Avenue, bringing together people of all faiths and religions as they stop at houses of worship and other religious centers. The walk will begin at 1:30 p.m. at the Washington Hebrew Congregation, 3935 Macomb St. NW, and end at 4:30 p.m. at the Islamic Center of Washington, 2551 Massachusetts Ave. NW. The requested donation starts at $10. Register at ifcmw.org/unity-walk/ or at the Washington Hebrew Congregation.
Pentagon Memorial The 184 lives lost in the Pentagon and on American Airlines Flight 77 have been immortalized into a near-two-acre memorial. The Pentagon Memorial is free to visit and is open 24 hours a day. Special services will be held for families that fell victim to the 9/11 attacks throughout the day. For details, visit pentagonmemorial.org.