Ten years ago, I wrote a long, jumbled essay reacting to 9/11. After trying desperately to get a handle on my emotions and observations, I concluded it was a fool’s errand. Quoting Kurt Vonnegut, I agreed that “there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre.”
Ten years later, as we prepare to reflect on that dark anniversary, my opinion hasn’t changed. Thousands of people died, and the world changed forever. What intelligent can one say about that?
But, as I wrote back then, “I am a writer. This is what I do. I trade in words.” So I have to try.
The Best of Us
Looking back on 9/11 is, at least in part, inspiring. The word, “heroism,” took on new meaning as police and firefighters charged into the smoking buildings, heedless of the danger, looking for people to rescue. Some of them didn’t come back out.
Four men on United Flight 93 had the courage to stand up to hijackers. They fought back, hoping perhaps that they might survive, but determined to make sure the plane wasn’t used for its intended purpose — an attack on the White House.
In the days and weeks that followed, people came forth to donate blood. Charity events were held to raise money for the families of the victims. We sought to help each other out however we could.
The Worst of Us
Looking back on 9/11 also causes me to wince. The despicable act of a madman and his followers gave voice to a previously quiet racism in America. Anti-Islamic sentiment raced through us as we considered every Muslim a jihadist devotee of Osama bin Laden — an idea as ridiculous as asserting all Christians subscribe to the ideas of Fred Phelps.
We launched a perfectly justifiable military campaign into Afghanistan in response to the attacks but used it as an excuse to initiate an Empire-building war in Iraq two years later — a place where al-Qaeda did not have a presence . . . until we sent our tanks in.
In the Land of the Free, we passed legislation giving the government sweeping powers to detain people without charging them with any crime, and we tolerated them being tortured. In the Home of the Brave, we were told FDR was wrong; there was much more than fear itself we should fear and that we should stay very afraid. And in the aftermath of that horror, we believed.
Ten Years On
Dark times brought out dark thoughts and dark behavior. Everyone, myself included, wanted revenge, wanted justice for what was done to us.
But there was a lot of light in the darkness too. The heroism of the average person — from a passenger on a hijacked plane, to a stranger giving blood, to a Christian standing up against anti-Muslim discrimination.
It’s tempting to think 9/11 showed us who we are, that it somehow defined us as a people. But all it really revealed was our essential humanity. We strove to be the best we could be while at times succumbing to our darker urges. This is being human. Nine/eleven amplified all that we are — both good and bad — but if it taught us anything, it is that what makes us human is always there waiting to send us soaring or drag us into depravity.
Beyond that, it was terribly tragic. Thousands died, and the world changed forever. Ten years later, there is still nothing intelligent to say about a massacre.