9.11.2008

Reflections on Sept. 11 & its Aftermath

by Rick Rockwell

Like any other day of remembrance, Sept. 11 must hold different meanings for each person. For instance, how could it possibly be the same for someone if they did not lose a friend or loved one on that day?

How could it be the same for someone in middle age and someone who is young?

As someone who spends plenty of time with students, this writer often thinks about that difference of perspective. The students in my classes must see Sept. 11 differently. How could they not? Some of them were 12 when it happened. Is it possible they’ve spent more than a third of their lives in a changed America? Do they even remember the pre-Sept. 11 America? Do they understand it?

But it seems the entire country is just stirring from a long national nightmare, a place where many chose not to remember that place, pre-Sept. 11 America. In that nightmare, we are not teenagers, but infants, mewling for protection and wallowing in our ignorance.


Yes, in the shameful history of America, in fear, we built our own concentration camps. Even one of our best presidents was guilty of that. But this time, in fear, the nation has sanctioned torture. This time, the nation has sanctioned hypocrisy: every car with a yellow ribbon of support for troops should hold someone enraged and willing to make change for the way the government has treated veterans. This time, leaders of both parties have stood idly by or merely shook their heads with an official hearing or two about gross abuses of executive power that have established precedents that undermine the Constitution.

After Al Qaeda guided those planes into the twin towers and the Pentagon, many reactions flooded the great national psyche. One of those ideas was that life should carry on unchanged, otherwise the terrorists would have won; they would have won at least a psychological battle. The other idea was that inevitably our attitudes would have to change: a post-9/11 world demanded that we adopt a tougher, more vigilant mindset. The character of Jack Ryan from the FOX network’s 24 epitomized the new mood: country above all else, breaking every rule to defend that country. But Ryan and the Bush administration that he personifies usually fails to realize that those rules, the body of laws and philosophies, are often what binds us together in what has been this American attempt at democracy. Destroy the rules and you destroy what you are defending.

No, the terrorists have not won, even though they struck a horrible blow seven years ago. How could they have won with their leaders ducking Predator drones and moving — likely in the nether-region of Waziristan and the untamed Afghan border — from cave to safe house and back. But our losses have been terrible. We lost more than the 2819 who died on that day.

Somewhere we lost just what we needed the most: resolve. Or maybe we adopted the resolution that life should go on as if 9/11 never happened. We therefore outsource our responsibility as citizens. Like Congress, we give a blank check to the president and ask him to clean up this mess while we go on our way: to our classes, to our suburban tasks and community meetings, to our summer camps and vacation get-aways. Modern life is too hectic and harried to bother about all this political nonsense, some of us may think. As historian Rich Shenkman recently noted in The Washington Post, large chunks of the citizenry are happy being uninformed and disconnected from involvement in their country. As some feel, we get the country we deserve. And the picture Shenkman paints is not the picture of a country that’s a democracy.

In a democracy, students would have shut down campuses, closed down cities and fought to make their voices heard about policies that were destroying the underpinnings of America. (That’s what happened in the 1960s and 1970s.) And middle class America would have eventually also become enraged and engaged in the struggle, calling on Congress and the courts to do what they are supposed to do when presidents want to run amok. Instead, in post-9/11 America, we grumble. We put our head down and push forward, dealing with the day-to-day struggles and leaving those complex questions about governance to those we appointed in the capital city to handle for us.

So, on 9/11, I mourn too. Because on 9/11, I lost my country. And I want it back.

For archival posts on Sept. 11, please see: "Sept. 11: What Did the Media Learn?" and "Revisiting Sept. 11."

(The photo from Sept. 11 in New York City is from the U.S. Navy and is therefore in the public domain. The photo is by Photographer's Mate 2nd Class Jim Watson. The photo was discovered via Flickr; it was posted there by slagheap, using a Creative Commons license.)











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