Remembering 9/11/01: Then and now

I’ve been struggling with expressing my feelings about the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, trying to bridge the gap between personal and political, remembrance and analysis.

Luckily, someone smarter than me has written the perfect piece about it. It’s from Time magazine’s special issue, “Beyond 9/11.” “For a while, we all lived like survivors,” writes Nancy Gibbs of the days after the attacks, stoking shelves and joining the Marine Corps or the Peace Corps, depending on our inclination.

“But there came a time when the roads diverged and most people could turn away and move on… We did not need to decide, as the widows did, when it becomes O.K. to throw away your husband’s toothbrush. We did not need to designate, as the soldiers did, who should be our children’s guardians as a decade of deployments began. We did not need to have to reckon, as American Muslims did, with the constant second look, the elasticity of liberty when a country gets scared. We did not have to wrestle, as the crew of American Airlines Flight 63 did, with a man trying to light his shoe and blow up a plane.”

This perfectly summarizes, in my opinion, the feeling a decade later. Everything has changed, yet everything remains the same. It is a more honest assessment than President Barack Obama’s, who at a concert postulated that “Our character as a nation has not changed.”

Saying that is maybe more aspirational than realistic, more of a reassurance than an honest assessment. It is true that many Americans don’t feel the repercussions of the attacks every day. They continue to live their lives unperturbed. Until they want to board an airplane to visit a relative across the country, or until a member of their community is sent overseas to fight in the two wars that resulted from the attacks.

Then there’s the general sense of uneasiness. “We’re more fearful now,” a friend said. America’s trust in its own security has been shaken. “You had that confidence, we are the United States, we are invincible, we always come to someone else’s aid,” said Brandon Miller, now 29, who was a freshman in college at the time. “You don’t really think of us being in need like that. But we were.”

An entire generation is coming of age in a time of the “war on terror,” a war that the U.S. has spent billions of dollars and thousands of lives to fight.

That’s the more abstract way of looking at 9/11/11: Where has America’s reaction to the attacks, the choices made by the country’s leaders, led? The New York Times has an excellent piece of analysis on “the price of lost chances” in the decade since, in which David Sanger writes that the cost of this war comes to at least $3.3 trillion.

Less than a trillion dollars of that “was for direct responses — including toppling the Taliban. But what if at least some of the remaining $2 trillion plus had been spent on other, longer-range threats to American national security? Rebuilding a broken education system? Finding more imaginative ways to compete with China? Reducing the national debt?” Those are the indirect costs, the lost opportunities to build something.

Personal memories: Where were you?

Then there’s the personal side. Close to 3,000 people were killed in the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and aboard Flight 93 that crashed into a Pennsylvania field. Their names were read aloud at ceremonies across the county. But this number doesn’t include the 6,200 U.S. soldiers killed since then in two wars, or the many who survived but returned home without a limb, or with a serious brain injury, or haunted by their memories.

Neither does it include the hundreds of coalition soldiers killed, or the tens of thousands of Iraqi and Afghani civilians who lost their lives.

That’s why the Time magazine issue is so powerful: It includes American firefighters and soldiers, but also an Iraqi civilian and a man detained a Guantanamo. Those, too, are part of the complex story of what happened since that sunny September day all of a sudden turned dark.

Many remember the day vividly. The memories are personal, from the college student who stepped into the chaotic street to the Pentagon assistant who worked in an office near the plane’s impact zone, had she not been out that day for a planned surgery. I had the opportunity to speak with a dozen people from around the D.C. region. Their memories bring back the confusion, shock and disbelief of a day that continues to deeply impact the U.S. Please take a look at the story on WJLA. I’m grateful to have had the chance meet those remarkable people.

Additional coverage

Here are some pieces that stand out from the sea of media coverage:

What we kept – The New York Times – Mundane items like a shred of a T-shirt and a red “Admit One” ticket are the relics that help us to remember what we cannot forget.

Also from the Times, Portraits of Grief – families who lost someone revisited 10 years later. Heartbreaking stories, told beautifully.

Where were you? While I took a personal approach, the Times takes a broad one: Users can submit their location and memories on this interactive map. Especially haunting are those from people close to the attack sites.

What’s your 9/11? Voice of America approached the anniversary from a different angle. Talking to Americans in their late teens or 20s, she’s found that they don’t necessarily see 9/11 as the most impactful event in their lifetime, the project’s creator Jessica Stahl told me on Facebook. She said that’s particularly true when asking people from other countries.

“It’s been really fascinating to see what is triggered for people when you ask about the news event that has had the most impact on them or most defined their life, and REALLY fascinating to see how that differs around the world,” Stahl said. The What’s your 9/11 site is beautifully simple and collects responses in text, tweets and videos from around the world.