It’s been nearly 10 years since the Sept. 11 attacks and the two questions that keep popping up in my head are: What has changed? And what have we learned?
My immediate answers are everything and nothing. But those are just gut-level reactions to fairly daunting questions that require a little more thought.
Nine years ago, we dedicated an entire issue of The Legal Intelligencer to remembering that tragic day. We decided to do the same thing for the 10th anniversary, focusing almost our entire issue on what members of the legal community experienced that day. We’re adding to it by posting even more remembrances online at www.thelegalintelligencer.com.
Reading through all the stories, I was struck by the notion that my earlier questions didn’t really matter. Because in story after story, in the wake of what was then considered an unimaginable tragedy, there is very little mention of answering big questions.
In story after story, work is abandoned, petty problems cast aside, and the overwhelming thoughts and emotions are centered on loved ones and the victims of the attacks.
The thought that struck me after reading all the stories is that, in the end, the only thing that matters are people and those we love. Everything else is just side issues and window dressing.
The stories are not filled with debates about politics or ideology or work assignments. They are not filled with proclamations of political party affiliation. There is sadness, anger, concern and a desire to connect, if not with loved ones, then fellow Americans. The first thing many people in the stories did was try to call a loved one to let them know they were OK.
When all hell was breaking loose, when there was a sense of almost apocalyptic doom hanging in the air, what we cared about was each other.
Flash forward 10 years, and what’s happened since? Two wars, two recessions, including the Great Recession, Hurricane Katrina, a diminished and increasingly venomous political system, and deeper political and social divisions. And then, finally, this past spring, the death of Sept. 11′s architect, Osama bin Laden, whose demise was probably best summed up with a subtlety that a guy like me could appreciate by The Philadelphia Daily News’ headline: “We Got the Bastard.”
You think about all the turmoil we’ve seen since Sept. 11, and it makes you wonder if we have learned anything. It’s easy to believe that everything has changed, and that our nation, and our society, has become more polarized, more fractured.
But then again, history’s worst atrocities have been committed by societies where everyone agreed and there was no dissension. The people who attacked us on Sept. 11, while having no real clue how to govern or run a country, clearly have a very narrow vision of what the world should be and think anyone who differs from that view should die. It’s enough to make you wonder if perhaps all the discord in our country is weirdly a sign of our strength, that even after all we’ve been through the last 10 years, we can hammer away at each other and yet our country is still standing.
Words and phrases like “Gitmo” and “Patriot Act” and “electronic eavesdropping” and “waterboarding” are hot-button ones sure to start arguments. Over the course of the last 10 years, those phrases and their attendant issues have been exposed, debated, restricted, condoned, condemned, survived. Talk of building a mosque and Islamic center near Ground Zero brought out passionate responses on both sides.
In all instances, eventually, we did what Americans have always done. We aired our dirty laundry in public, we said what we thought and said it loudly, and we fought it out in the press, in Congress, in the courts.
Don’t get me wrong. I find the increasing polarization and ugliness of our political discourse depressing. I find it sad that we can’t summon the unity we all felt in the early days after the Sept. 11 attacks. But our way of life has carried on. We’ve been knocked down, bloodied, kicked and left for dead as a nation a few times since Sept. 11. We’ve gotten up every time. Maybe on wobbly legs, but we, as a country, have gotten up.
Many terrorism and security experts believe we will get hit again. It’s a sobering thought I’d rather not consider. If and when it does happen, I have no doubt that we will be united once again. America sometimes resembles a pugnacious family, where the siblings routinely kick the crap out of each other, but woe to the outsider who tries to take on any family member — they get the whole family gunning for them.
What got us through that awful day 10 years ago is not entirely different from what has gotten us through the subsequent years: our sense of community.
Despite suffering the worst attack on American soil 10 years ago, the United States is still here. You’re still here, too. Our country matters, as you do as well. As the 10th anniversary of Sept. 11 rolls around, try to ask yourself not the questions I posed earlier, but these instead: What did you think about that day? What did you care about?
Once you’ve answered those questions, take a good look at the people around you. If something bad happens, they’re probably going to have your back. Think about that.
Because in the end, if the walls start coming down around you, nothing is going to matter other than getting out. And nobody is getting out without the help of each other. •