After Five Years, Failure

In 2001, I checked in with everyone on the morning of the attacks, and then again that night before I finally went to bed.

In 2002, I reflected on what it is to be an American. And it was just as important to me to note that we’re all wrong.

In 2003, I was stuck thinking about the impact that violence and anger have on all of our lives.
In 2004, I had to watch and remember from a distance.

And last year, I think I finally started to understand how others may have seen the attacks when they happened.

But this year is something sadder for me. I feel as if we’ve failed in so many ways. All of us. I have alluded to it in all the pieces I wrote in the past, but after all the grief of the day, one of the strongest feelings I came away with on the day of the attacks was a feeling of some kind of hope. Being in New York that day really showed me the best that people can be. As much as it’s become cliché now, there’s simply no other way to describe a display that profound. It was truly a case of people showing their very best nature.

We seem to have let the hope of that day go, though. I see that public discourse has dissolved, again, into the same petty partisan politics that we were occupied with in the past. I remember in 2001 it was a summer of shark attacks and Gary Condit and I’ll be damned if we’re not right back to the same depths of idiocy now. There’s no genuine appreciation for the fact that we share our American experience with people whom we can love despite our disagreements.

I’m a hypocrite here, too; I fall into the bickering myself. But I hope, at least, that I’m a sinner trying to be saved, and I loathe the fact that I only ever hear those horrible attacks used as a lever to help win an argument. Just once, I wish I’d hear someone talk about “9/11” as a justification for compromising with their neighbor, or with the person across the aisle. Just once.

And I don’t feel safer. I feel like we understand less of the threat against us today than we did when we were attacked. I have not forgotten that, despite the lunacy of news reports about duct tape recommendations and hair gel policy, there actually were envelopes of anthrax mailed around. There really are threats, but all the day-to-day precautions seem to be focused on trying to close the door after the horse has already bolted. What happened to Osama Bin Laden?

I got complacent, too. I was ready to make a change. I was ready to make a sacrifice. I wanted to be asked to buy war bonds, to spend steel pennies, to plant a victory garden. I did make some changes, trying to use less gasoline or to better understand the world around me. I even got a solid start on embracing the ideas of people whom I thought I disagreed with, and have become a passionate moderate. But when we had a chance to really change the way people live their lives in our country, those who should have been leaders asked us to go back to our normal lives.

Today, I’m not 100% satisfied with our normal lives. I want the better life I saw from my friends and neighbors for a few brief moments after the worst day of our lives. I grieve not just for all the lives we lost that day, but for the fact that their loss could have helped us all be better, and that it could have inspired us to keep living the way we do at our best.

Honestly, looking around today, I feel we’ve failed. We aren’t properly honoring those we lost. But I’m still optimistic that we can revive the effort, and that we can do justice to those we remember. Maybe we can still get it right. Most of all, I just hope that we never get a reminder that forces us to realize what an opportunity we’ve missed.