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9/11: The Letdown

Sep
11
2006

My brain doesn’t do well with the “I was doing this when that event happened” associations, at least not in great detail. My father, for example, can tell you he was walking through a golf course with his best friend on December 7, 1941. He was eleven years of age.

My most vivid memory from that age was at summer camp when, while fishing one afternoon following a swimming session, I accidentally hooked my briefs from a bundle of clothes I had piled beside me and I cast them into the pond. Underwear dangling from a fishing rod hardly constitutes an historic time in our nation’s history, but it stands out in my mind.

I have no idea where I was when I learned that President Reagan had been shot, nor where I was when I learned that John Lennon had been murdered. I was in the Mediterranean on board the USS Coral Sea when the Challenger blew up in the sky over Florida… I think. But that’s as specific as that memory gets for me.

I do have some clear memories of September 11, 2001, however.

At the time I worked for a public relations agency in Watertown, Massachusetts. I was in my office, working hard (see… memory can be a deceiving thing), when someone outside my door mentioned that a plane had crashed into one of the World Trade Center towers. At the time the implications were far from apparent, but it was a curious situation, and one of the networks happened to be carrying the news, so I sauntered down to the lobby to check it out.

I’m pretty sure the television set was tuned to CNN and Aaron Brown. I and about a half-dozen of my colleagues watched him talk for a few moments when one of the cameras zoomed in on the damaged tower. I irreverently joked that it looked straight out of a Warner Brothers cartoon, as it appeared that the hole in the side of the building was plane-shaped, much like a hole in a wall will be a perfect silhouette of Daffy Duck after he runs screaming through.

About that time the broadcast went briefly black, but before the picture was lost, the second jet appeared on screen. Once again I cracked wise. Assuming I was simply seeing a jet full of passengers approaching or departing La Guardia on another routine business day, I feigned horror and yelled that another plane was crashing into the buildings.

Little did I know.

When the picture came back, both the visual and Mr. Brown made it apparent that a second impact had indeed occurred. My heart sank. Someone in the lobby wondered aloud if air traffic might be experiencing a glitch, sending unwitting planes hurtling into the towers.

That’s no accident, I said in a tone much changed from the one I’d used just moments before. Something inside told me we’d just witnessed an act of terror. The implications were days, if not weeks, from being understood – if we yet have a grasp on how that day changed our lives.

The rest of the day and those that followed remain out of focus for me. I spent a great deal of it watching events unfold: the scene at the Pentagon, the wild rumors, the terrible image of two massive structures crumbling into giant, smoking heaps, the frantic search for survivors — and answers. My heart still aches for my country, and I struggle with feelings of hate and a thirst for revenge. I suppose I always will. But mostly I am disappointed at what we have failed to accomplish as a country in the five years since.

I guess I believed that such a blow would only cause America to rise up, seize the opportunity, and march together to confront all those things that had distracted us for so long. Back then, I would have believed that in the 1826 days since the attack, we would have caught the world by the neck and dragged it forward as we had in 1941. Today I’m disappointed to admit that I’m not so sure we still have the will or courage.

Instead of taking stock of ourselves and our world and deciding what we are going to do about it; instead of uniting and steeling ourselves for the challenge of leadership in a world beset by tumult, we act like a selfish child who has been denied a hot fudge sundae. Rather than do without, we are urged to buy more in order to buoy the economy and distract ourselves from the truth.

In the 20th Century America conquered flight, split the atom, and put a man on the Moon. We twice stepped in to defeat tyranny in two World Wars, crisscrossed a continent with wide asphalt highways and harnessed mighty rivers. In the 21st Century, in spite of the potential we still have within us, America is more concerned that it can watch a ball game in high definition than it is with helping our neighbors.

Five years later we still bicker about building a monument that will pay tribute to the victims of terror, but that will not offend anyone (meanwhile, an entire city lies in ruin, all but forgotten).

Five years later, our opportunity to open the new millennium by showing how great we can still be by setting the standard for a generation or more of people is gone. It will take extraordinary resolve and an unprecedented amount of selflessness to gain the advantage again.

Share  Posted by Mike Spinney at 12:15 PM | Permalink

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