It’s an exercise so old and well-worn it’s practically a party trick: Ask your parents or grandparents where they were when they heard the news President John F. Kennedy was shot, and they likely can tell you right down to the brand of coffee they were drinking.
That kind of frozen-in-time moment, where everything in your memory coalesces like amber around a beetle, doesn’t happen very often. I lived through the assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan and can tell you only deductively how I got the word. I know for a fact they didn’t pipe news broadcasts through the high school intercom or roll out TVs as they did during those horrible days in Dallas.
The Iran Hostage Crisis was headline news morning, noon and night for 444 straight days between 1979 and 1981, yet I had to look those dates up and today cannot tell you the name of a single former hostage. Miracle on Ice? Wasn’t a hockey fan. Baby Jessica kept us glued to our TV sets for two days back in 1987, yet I defy you to remember why.
Even those incidents that did freeze the moment have ways of working themselves loose. Given the chance, I could walk to the very spot in my college dorm TV lounge where I saw the footage of space shuttle Challenger exploding, but did we pause even a second on Jan. 28 of this year to mark the 35th anniversary of that tragedy? Maybe you did; I didn’t know about it until preparing this article.
My point is not that those events — and a million others just like them over a typical lifetime — aren’t important in their own right. They are very important, history-making even. But as time goes on and other more immediate things push to the top of the list, it’s often hard to summon the pain, joy, outrage or sadness as sharp as the day it was minted.
This month, we mark the 20th anniversary of an event that stands, in my mind anyway, as a rare exception to this rule. The attack on U.S. soil by al-Qaida terrorists on 9/11 stands as stark and clear to me today as it did on that brilliant morning. I was in the car headed to my job at Alltel in Lincoln, Neb., and called a friend of mine to talk about the radio reports of some wayward pilot somehow managing to veer so far off-course he’d hit the World Trade Center. When he set me straight, I drove directly to my desk and spent the day staring at a TV monitor on our floor.
I remember the panic rising as reports came in of the other planes and can still hear myself gasp audibly when the towers went down. Worse, we were in the middle of moving to Arkansas, and my beloved had moved ahead of me to get the kids started in their new school. At a time when everyone wanted to be close to their loved ones, I was 11 hours away from mine, not knowing what else was to come. The next thing I remember as clearly was standing during Sunday Mass on Sept. 16, where out of nowhere tears started rolling down my cheeks and wouldn’t stop.
I won’t bore you with a cliché, “Gosh, where has the time gone?” as we achieve our two-decade anniversary as a people and nation forever changed. Nor will I tell you that we should rend our garments every Sept. 11 merely to conjure the same outrage we felt back then. But there is something to be said for honoring those events and spots in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania as the sacred tableau of American history they are. Twenty years is long enough, after all, for at least one generation to be born with no concept of 9/11 as the fulcrum of the 21st century about which turns nearly every political, ideological, sociological, religious and even technological lever since. We can never let that become the norm, woke sensitivities and revisionism be damned.
Late last month, the sheaves of 9/11 were gathered as the last American troops came home, bone-tired, from Afghanistan. It was an unceremonious and ignoble departure, one far short of what two decades worth of fighting American men and women deserved. And just as the grass has regrown in Stoyestown, Pa., the Pentagon Wall again gleams, and Ground Zero gurgles and hums with life, the desert sands will soon erase our footprints. Were my children younger, I might be at a loss as many parents are today to adequately explain why it all happened in the first place, this 20-year loss of life and treasure, if only to come back to where we started.
But if I were in that position, I could still point to 9/11 as the reason why. Not for the violence, the sorrow and the death; not for what was or was not gained. But for what that time showed us about ourselves and the capacity for heroism humans have under fire. That love of country and a well of unity still exists in our beloved homeland. Sucker-punched, we stood tall. Challenged, we answered. Mourning, we linked arms. And in these times, where we find so much to quarrel about, I’m just naive enough to believe that well has yet to run dry; that time has not robbed love, faith and compassion of its power to overcome anything we brothers and sisters see fit to put between us.
May the families of those who died on 9/11 and in the 20 years since continue to find comfort and hope. May the turmoil of this story’s last chapter not add an epilogue of bloodshed. And may we as a people find a way back to appreciating what’s universal and good in all of us, as we did then, facing challenges that surround us but cannot divide us. That would be the most fitting tribute of all.
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