20 years ago
the Towers go down
people come together
us destroy our enemies
us drift apart
the world change
They had passed.
For most Americans, 9/11 was a watershed moment, no matter your age, job, religion, gender or any demographic factor. There are countless articles, videos and other media about September 11th. The loved ones of those lost and the survivor’s of the hellfire have left poignant, touching accounts of being directly scarred by September 11th’s impact.
I cannot speak to their harrowing and haunting experience. I can only speak to mine.
I was a young 5th grader scarred 9/11’s aftermath. The tranquil 90s gave way to expansions of government authority, two costly wars and the decline of civility.
Over the past week, as I thought about what happened 21 years ago, I decided I needed to say something that hasn’t been said, or least hasn’t been said a lot.
Here are my observations:
A New Generation
My late childhood, teenage years and young adulthood were defined by 9/11, the response to it and its lasting impacts. I cannot separate most memories from those times from the terrorist attack. I recall a family conversation in a local McDonald’s circa 2004:
“Do you think there will be a draft?” My mother asks, divvying out Chicken McNuggets to my younger sister, Kelli.
I chomp on my McChicken, too hungry and too nervous to chime in.
“No, Iraq will be handled.” My grandfather responds, puffing out his chest as he was wont to do. “Afghanistan is another question.”
I put my sandwich down and hide my shaking hands under the table.
“What’s Af-ghan-i-stan?” Kelli asks.
My grandfather looks to me. “The Graveyard of Empires. Somewhere we should have never gone.”
I nod and resume eating.
My hands haven’t stopped shaking.
Being a teenager in 2004–2005 was scary, especially if you have an active mind like me. There was a fair amount of talk of the draft being reinstated, with Iraq and Afghanistan both resembling Vietnam-esque quagmires by the year.
The clear goals of ousting Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein and bringing Al-Qaeda operatives to justice transformed to reflect the wishes of those in power.
Who knew when we would leave those countries?
Who knew how many soldiers would be enough?
According to a 2015 Washington Post article, as much as a quarter of the country cannot remember 9/11, with 1/5 not even born yet at the time of the Towers’ fall.
Furthermore, Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Director Christopher Wray pointed out in his commemoration this week that some of these Americans now work for the FBI.
I feel a kinship to past adults watching the next generation grow up.
What did the survivors of the Civil War era think of the constant Native American Wars?
How did World War I veterans feel when their “war to end all wars” became a prelude to another destructive conflict?
What did World II veterans think as Vietnam unfolded, and they sent their children off to war?
History marches on, whether or not you’re ready, on a grander scale than the individual can challenge.
The Last Gasp of Cross Party Unity?
What president boasted above 80% job approval? Considering how nasty and partisan current American politics are, it’s almost impossible to imagine a politician or institution enjoying those numbers today.
Considering how his term ended with Hurricane Katrina and the 2008 financial crisis, it’s shocking how much approval George W. Bush achieved, and arguably, squandered, as he stood among the rubble of the Twin Towers.
As Pew Research expertly lays out, 9/11 had a lot of effects, one of them being 96% of Republicans, 78% of Democrats and 86% of all adults approving of President Bush’s job performance in September 2001.
The enemies were clear. Saddam Hussein. Osama Bin-Laden. The objectives made sense.
Rid Iraq of weapons of mass destruction and destroy Al-Qaeda.
Oh how complicated things became…
I recall a second McDonalds family conversation, perhaps mid 2005:
“He was supposed to be an inconsequential president.” My grandfather states, ignoring his cooling fries. “Over a time of prosperity and calm. Look at what the Fates had in mind.”
I nod, thoughtfully chewing my Chicken McNuggets.
“What does in-con-se-quen-tial mean?” Kelli asks, breaking apart the word with precision.
My mom smiles. “Not important.”
Kelli gulps her Shamrock Shake. “But it is!”
“It sort of reminds me of a Lord of the Rings quote.” I offer, with some hesitation. “I wish it didn’t happen in my time. But it did. And I have to decide what to do with it.”
My grandfather nods. “Too bad Bush didn’t.”
Mr. Bush may have been the last president with bi-partisan approval. More and more, politics divide families, end frienships and halt partnerships.
Name your issue -domestic or international terrorism, gun violence and gun control, environmentalism, as some examples — and time after time, they divide us.
What would it take to unite us again?
The sole scenario which comes to my mind is attack or invasion by an external power, such as Russia or China. The enemy would be clear and cooperation would be paramount, as it was following Pearl Harbor or 9/11.
Short of that, cross-party unity appears to be an extinct species.
Religion’s Last Stand?
The United States of America used to be a far more religious nation. Look at how representative Charles Bennett and President Dwight D. Eisenhower put “In God We Trust” on our currency during the Cold War.
In 9/11’s aftermath, 78% of Americans said “religion’s influence in life was increasing.”
Since, Christianity and organized religion has been slipping away, again pointed out by Pew Research. As they write, “If recent trends in religious switching continue, Christians could make up less than half of the U.S. population within a few decades.”
Imagine Christians becoming a minority in the country whose first settlers included fundamentalist Puritans, Pilgrims and others who fled religious persecution.
Perhaps correlation and not causation, but it’s interesting to note that organized religion’s most recent apex was during our nation’s most traumatic moment.
I recall a third McDonald’s family summit, around 2006–2007.
“Do you pray?” My grandfather asks, before blowing on his coffee.
“I do!” Kelli yells, fries in each hand.
My mom frowns.
“And you?” My grandfather cocks his head.
“I did.” I reply, holding my McGriddle with both hands. “Not so much anymore.”
My grandfather looks out the window at the traffic easing by. “The philosopher has never killed any priests, whereas the priest has killed a great many philosophers.”
“Dennis Diderot.” I reply with a grin. “Though he may have been overstating it a bit.”
“I think he did.” Kelli says, before chomping down on some fries.
Our laughter breaks the tension.
I went to a private Catholic school from kindergarten until high school. 9/11 was a crash course in the power of religion, for good or ill. All the Bible stories I had studied about tolerance, kindness and forgiveness were eradicated in the face of so much death, hatred and a fundamental incompatibility of values.
The fact that most of radical Islam’s victims are fellow Muslims jaded me further.
As I grew older, I bore more witness to organized religion’s flaws, whether they be further instances of violence, sexual abuse of minors or good old-fashioned greed.
Have younger generations been too scarred to return to something which gave so many Americans comfort, including in the days after 9/11?
Could organized religion return to its former height of influence in this country?
I’ll conclude with a poem, just as I began:
20 years later
barriers go up
people push apart
destroy each other
too few drift back together
the world change
the 9/11 moment
It has not returned.
But it might.
What will it take?