Thursday, September 11, 2014

9/11 Becomes a Foreign Country

"Dad, what's 9/11 all about?" my daughter asked me last night. I was a little stunned. Doesn't everyone understand this? Well, no.

My daughter's oldest siblings were old enough to have some grasp of what was going on that fateful day. Her immediately older siblings have picked it up through social osmosis. Having been born after the event, my daughter doesn't quite understand it. I suspect she will never get it in quite the same way as those of my generation.

Sept. 11, 2001 was an incredibly poignant day. I will never forget it. The day started out normal. The report of the first airplane striking one of the World Trade Center towers was announced on the radio during our commute to work as most of us in the car dozed. We turned up the radio and listened as they reported the second aircraft striking another tower.

We went through the workday in a daze, not getting much work done. Nobody knew for sure what was going on. People were glued to the internet and to the TVs in the break room. More attacks. The Pentagon was hit by a plane. A plane crashed in a field in Pennsylvania. The first tower fell around lunchtime. The second just before we left work.

Not much was said as we rode home listening to the radio. What was there to say? I remember the somber mood, the sense of helplessness, and the empty feeling in the pit of my stomach.

The next morning American flags were flying on houses and businesses everywhere as we made our way to work, but these displays evoked little joy. We knew more, but we still felt confused, dark, hurt, angry, and powerless.

The following year scout troops in the area erected American flags throughout their neighborhoods on 9/11. I had mixed feelings about it at the time. I understood that it was a demonstration of American resolve, but it could easily be seen as a commemoration of the terrorist attacks. Why on earth would we want to celebrate such evil deeds?

Much has happened since then as our country has tried to come to grips with the reality that was roughly thrust upon us that day 13 years ago. In hindsight I have many problems with the responsive actions that have been undertaken. As each year has passed I have noticed steadily fewer American flags being flown on 9/11.

This is not without fairly recent historical precedence. Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941 (which became the main proximate inducement for US involvement in WWII), many people observed 12/7 for years. But observance had fallen off to a polite mention by the time I was a school child a quarter century later. I was in junior high before I gained any context on the matter.

This is as it must be. We study history to gain context that we hope will allow us to better govern our future. We study history not only to better understand our predecessors, but to better understand ourselves. We crave to know who we are and why we are who we are. We hope that the past can give us some insight into that.

But it has been observed that the past is a foreign country that none of us can ever visit. We will forever be outsiders looking in. Also, our study of the past is almost always interrupted by real time events imposing themselves upon us. History necessarily takes a back seat to the immediate moment where our lives are lived.

Besides, William E. White of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation tells us in this article that "There is no truth to the adage that those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it. We can never repeat history. The unique combination of people, place, time, conditions and opportunity will never occur again in the same way." We can, however, learn from history, even if, as White reminds us, the interpretation of history is always up for debate.

I was trying to think of a clever way to say that 9/11 fading into history is a good thing in a way. But that's about the same thing as saying that it has both pros and cons. And that's kind of an inane thing to say. The event will fade into history as the natural order of things. It's not necessarily good or bad; it just is.

And while I will never forget experiencing that fateful day, my memories are now informed by 13 years of additional context that alter my perception of those memories.

Last night I (with help from two of my other children) gave my daughter a 60-second explanation of what 9/11 was all about. There was no time for a deeper history lesson, nor was she asking for such. I hope to give her more context with time. But like others with no first person memory of the event, 9/11 for her will forever be a foreign country that she will never visit.

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