Sunday, September 11, 2011

The Anniversary

Over the past few days I have resisted the urge to dwell on the tenth anniversary of the September 11 2001 attacks. There is a cynical part of me that can't help feeling that observations like today's are arbitrary, that we should move on, that while a moment of silence might be called for, that the media specials and endless commentary insisting that we relive the tragedy are needless overkill. But as I set here in Starbuck's on Sunday morning a little before eight in the morning, I find myself trying to sort out in my own mind the meaning of the 9-11 attacks. Everybody seems to agree that this was one of the pivotal days in American history. We hear endless talk about how the world changed on that day.

But what really is the significance of 9-11? How have our lives really changed? I have a few thoughts on that.

There are some all-too-obvious answers. Superficial inconveniences have crept into our lives as our society has become more conscious of security in public places. Anyone who travels regularly by air knows how much the experience of flying has changed: the ever more complex security routine, the removal of shoes and emptying of pockets, the increasingly invasive scanners and pat-downs and restrictions on what you can carry on the plane.

More importantly, America has gotten used to war. We are so used to war, in fact, that many of us, particularly those who don't have family fighting in Iraq or Afghanistan, are hardly conscious of the fact that our country is still engaged in two ongoing conflicts. The news media no longer pays much attention to these wars, hardly ever mentioning the American casualties that still occur regularly. How many people in this country are aware that just last month, in August of this year, 69 Americans were killed in Afghanistan? And thousands more young men and women are returning home from combat bearing physical and emotional scars that they will carry for the rest of their lives. Whether or not you agree with the reasons for these wars, their long-term impact on countless human lives, in America and in the Middle East, has to be obvious.

In the days and weeks after the attacks, public displays of patriotism become popular as the American people banded together in a show of solidarity. I'm sure that everyone can remember the flags that were flying everywhere, the "Power of Pride" bumperstickers on so many cars and SUVs, Toby Keith singing about putting a boot in someone's ass.

But at the same time, much of the country also experienced a period of personal and spiritual reflection that could have brought about a greater spirit of compassion, unity, and selflessness. This path, if it had been followed, could have led well beyond the superficial displays of patriotism that were so popular. Everywhere it seemed there was talk of focusing on what really matters in life, working together, helping those less fortunate, paying less attention to material gain and more attention to family and community and serving a greater good. If this spirit had taken hold, if America had really found a renewed sense of giving and compassion, then this would have been the ultimate victory over the terrorists who attacked our country, a more meaningful victory than could be won on any battlefield.

But that spirit didn't last. It faded and frayed with time, just like the flags that were left out too long.

Today, millions of Americans will pause and reflect on the September 11 attacks. We will think about the lives that were lost in the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and on the four airplanes. We will think about those who have died on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan since the attacks. We will reflect on the human costs of terrorism. All of this is good and appropriate. But I hope that we will also think about and reflect on our own lives, and what they mean; about what we value, what is really important to us, what our country could have been and can still be.

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