Editorials, Opinion

Sept. 11, 2001-21: 20 years of grief

The average college student has no true memory of Sept. 11, 2001. Neither do current high school, middle school or elementary school students. They were too young — if they had even been born yet — to remember the day two planes took down the twin towers of the World Trade Center, while another crashed into the Pentagon and yet another nosedived into a field in Pennsylvania.

Twenty years after the day that changed the United States, America’s youth have no memory of the catalyst, but they have lived their entire lives in the aftermath.

They have never known a world in which Americans don’t have to get to the airport two or more hours early so you can get through a security check consisting of multiple X-rays and relieving yourself of your shoes.

They have never known a world in which the Twin Towers were an integral part of the New York City skyline, as recognizable as the Empire State Building and the Statue of Liberty. They’ve never seen the nation come together the way it did in the days and weeks immediately following 9/11. They’ve never seen our country so cohesive, so compassionate.

They have never known a world in which America is not at war with the Middle East. Prior to August of this year, they’d likely be hard pressed to even say who or what U.S. soldiers were fighting. Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan … ISIS, al Qaeda, the Taliban … Their lives have been filled with the seemingly interchangeable names of countries and groups  halfway across the world where family and friends go and come back irrevocably changed, if they are lucky enough to come back at all.

Hindsight is 20/20. (Appropriate, isn’t it, for the 20th anniversary of the day that changed America’s course?) And what have we learned in the last two decades?

We’ve learned that declaring war on an abstraction like “terror” leads to endless battles and thousands of deaths and little-to-no progress. We’ve learned that fighting a nebulous enemy is like playing an eternal game of whack-a-mole that you can never win, because as soon as you smash one, another pops up somewhere else. We’ve learned that punishing entire countries for the actions of a few only sends more potential combatants into the arms of our enemies, because to the once-innocent, America is now the terrorist, dropping bombs and spewing bullets — inserting catastrophic violence into people’s everyday lives.

War seemed right — seemed just — in the heat of the moment. And if America’s 20-year war on terrorism had produced more than a handful of successes, maybe it would still feel right, feel just. Because 20 years later, there’s still this anger simmering under the surface, the byproduct of a profound national grief for everything and everyone we’ve lost in the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001.

It’s easier to be angry than sad. Anger motivates; it moves us to action. Sadness paralyzes, and the world does not stop turning for anyone frozen by grief.

Perhaps we did not realize it, but for the past 20 years we have collectively mourned our lost innocence — our lost sense of security. Prior to the day the towers fell, we never imagined such horror could happen on our shores, and we have spent every day since looking over our shoulders and lashing out at possible threats.

The U.S. has spent a long time in the second stage of grief — anger. Next, we bargain — for information: the hows and whys that led up to that day, and every day of war since, made accessible to the general public. Then the depression will set in as we likely face ugly truths about our own country, our allies and our so-called enemies. And finally, acceptance, as we come to grips with the reality that no act of vengeance can rewrite the past, but every day brings the opportunity to write a better future.