I moved into a new apartment last week, and I’ve since noticed that when there are low clouds in the sky, the airplanes out of Logan fly low over my new neighborhood as they depart for wherever. It is cloudy today and I can hear them overhead, roaring by every few minutes, hidden in the gray weather above.
I think about that day when I hear the engines. Of course I do. It was nine years ago, but still, for me, it is the sound of airplane engines that brings it all back, if only for a moment.
Everyone has a story about where they were on that day. One friend of mine, a cook, was buried in the kitchen for the breakfast rush and had no idea what was going on until the orders dried up. He walked out of the kitchen wondering what was going on to find everyone staring dumbstruck at the television. Another friend of mine was working at a brokerage house in San Francisco. He didn’t have a television and liked to listen to music on headphones during his commute to work. He got to work and started calling various extensions at the New York home office in the World Trade Center, but nobody was picking up. It wasn’t until his boss came in and told him what had happened that he realized he had been calling dead people.
I was a teacher, and it was the first day of school. I was the first person in the building to find out what was going on, and I ran around from teacher to teacher letting them know what had happened before hauling two televisions out of the library closet so we could all watch together. I was shattered, but the children were terrified, and so I had to hold myself together and reassure them, even as the sound of fighter jets started roaring overhead. One of my students heard the news and turned white, because her father was supposed to be at a meeting in the Trade Center that morning. He survived, many others did not. That night, I bought a bottle of brown liquor on the way home and drank it off in front of my own television as those images were seared into my memory forever.
When all is said and done, someone once said, there’s nothing left to do or say. There are 300 million versions of this story in America, and billions more around the world. Everyone remembers where they were, and what they were doing, on that day. Give anyone you meet a chance, and they’ll tell you all about it.
Nine years, four national elections, two wars and two presidents since that day, and where are we now as a nation? Broke, deranged and dangerous pretty much sums it up. We have Christian-Taliban pastors in Florida with filthy souls threatening to burn the Qu’ran, as if such an act had any meaning beyond a desire to make money, and a national news media apparatus all too happy to give them all the ink and air time he could ever wish for. We have seething crowds threatening arson and murder because a Muslim community center might get built next to a strip club on the site of a defunct coat store. We have national caricatures like Sarah Palin charging people more than $200 for the chance to meet with her on that day, as if she has any significance at all. We’ve got stabbings and beatings and firebombings, and this is nine years later.
We are a nation of euphemisms now. It’s not spying on the American people, it is “national security.” It’s not holding someone in a hellhole without charges or trial, it is “indefinite detention.” It’s not kidnapping, it is “extraordinary rendition.” It’s not murder or assassination, it is “targeted killing.” It’s not torture, it is “enhanced interrogation.” It’s not wildly and patently illegal and immoral on its face, it is “war.”
We are a lessened nation nine years later, and much of the damage has been done by our own hand. It is one thing for people to react with fear and rage after an outrageous act of violence. It is quite another for the leaders of those people to exploit that fear and rage for their own dark and greedy purposes, and nine years later, we are down in the ditch thanks to exactly that sort of behavior. Thousands of American soldiers have died in Iraq and Afghanistan, and tens of thousands more have been grievously maimed. Millions of civilians in those two countries have been slaughtered or shattered, but we may never know the true scope of the carnage, because “we don’t do body counts.”
It is not all darkness, however, because we also have this, from the second president to take up residence in the White House since that day:
President Obama concluded his press conference today with a statement on the importance of protecting the rights of American Muslims. “We don’t differentiate between them and us,” he said. “It’s just us. And that is a principle that I think is going to be very important for us to sustain.”
Obama was asked about the controversial Park51 Islamic center, and said: “I think I’ve been pretty clear on my position here. And that is: This country stands for the proposition that all men and women are created equal, that they have certain inalienable rights, and one of those inalienable rights is to practice their religion freely.”
“What that means,” he continued, “is that if you could build a church on a site, you could build a synagogue on a site, if you could build a Hindu temple on a site, then you should be able to build a mosque on the site.”
“We’ve got millions of Muslim Americans, our fellow citizens in this country,” Obama said. “They’re going to school with our kids. They’re our neighbors. They’re our friends. They’re our coworkers. And when we start acting as if their religion is somehow offensive, what are we saying to them?”
That’s about exactly right, despite the sorry fact that it comes from the same president who has been helpless to refrain from perpetuating – or all too eager to perpetuate – the barbaric and anti-American practices that have become all too commonplace in the nine years since that day. In this, he must not be allowed to lead us, because the grooves of this manner of leadership are too deeply cut into the road for him to easily deviate. In this, we must lead him, and I suspect he will follow if given the chance.
Nine years later, one truth remains: America is an idea, a dream, a hope that has yet to be realized. Take away our people, our cities, our roads, our crops, our armies and navies and bombs and guns, take all of that away and there is still the idea, as vibrant and vital as it was when the Founders first put ink to parchment and changed the world. Everyone you know owns a heritage that began somewhere else; we are all different in so many ways, and all that binds us is the ink on that parchment and the ideas therein contained. We are all our brother’s and sister’s keeper, beholden to one another, all of us children of that idea.
Nine years ago, we were forced into an accounting of how dear that idea is to us, and were found wanting. Nine years later, we still are. The idea deserves better than what we have given to it. We can continue in this fashion, or we can summon within ourselves the will and wisdom to locate those better angels of our nature that are surely there, waiting for us.
Let us try, at least, to locate them, and make them sing. 365 days from now, we will be marking the passage of a decade since that day. What a proper moment to celebrate a new beginning, a renewed focus on how we can dedicate ourselves to the daily creation of that more perfect union we know is possible. What a chance to transform a day of sorrow and hatred into a day of somber recognition of our flaws, our faults, and the boundless possibilities of the idea that is, still, us.