I’ve been thinking about the 9/11 anniversary that passed and how that tragedy changed us. It occurs to me that there is a whole generation that knows of 9/11 only as a piece of history, a date to be memorized with facts and images but not much more. That’s not a criticism, just an observation that a lot of time has passed, more time than I care to admit, since that Tuesday morning in 2001.
What’s unfortunate for those who weren’t yet alive or were too young to have experienced the profound shock of 9/11 is that they have no sense of the before and the after of 9/11. This is true of every generation. Those too young to be moved by the Kennedy assassination will never know what it felt like to live in the America of November 21, 1963 and thereafter the America of November 22, 1963. The same can be said of Pearl Harbor and the America of December 6, 1941 versus the America of December 7, 1941.
I regret that I didn’t appreciate that span of time between the collapse of the Berlin Wall and communism in 1989 and September 10, 2001. It is only in hindsight and in comparing it to the world after 9/11 that I recognize that as a nation, that 12-year span was better than we realized.
I’m not saying it was some type of carefree golden age; we had our problems, but it did not feel like the very foundations of our nation and our way of life were unraveling at the seams. There were still lines that wouldn’t be crossed and a set core of American beliefs that gave us strength and comfort. All that and more was true as the sun set on Monday, September 10, 2001. But everything changed the following morning.
We suffered a grievous wound that day and while much has been covered by scar tissue and scabs, I’m not sure we can say we’ve healed. We lost 2,977 souls that day as well as our sense of safety and security. The attack was an attack on our homeland on ordinary people doing everyday things.
Out instinct was to come together. For weeks afterward, there was unity and solidarity amongst Americans along with a seriousness of purpose, sobriety of thought, and a sense of humility in realizing just how fragile life can be. That was 20 years ago and that unity, solidarity, and sobriety is beyond our reach 20 years later.
As I write this, we’ve lost some 677,731 Americans to Covid-19. There is unimaginable mourning and grief in our country, but people cry alone because we can’t agree that the pandemic is real, or that masks work, or that vaccines save lives.
At a time when we need that sense of American unity, American seriousness of purpose, American solidarity, and American sobriety, we can’t find it. There may be several causes, but I suspect it has to do with the fact that unlike 9/11, the pandemic lacks a single public event that we all watch with shock and horror and fear; we’re missing that sense of humility that comes before everything else.
I miss who and what we were as a nation and how we were when it counted most. Today, we tolerate—even celebrate—incivility, we mock expertise, and we label anything we don’t agree with as “fake news.” Will today’s young ever find that sense of American unity, seriousness of purpose, solidarity, and sobriety that past generations found on the edges of history? We can only hope.