So... ten years. There hasn't been a ton of noteworthy history in my lifetime. The end of Vietnam, fall of the Soviet Union and the Berlin Wall, Challenger and Columbia, Reagan being shot, election of the first black president, end of apartheid, a hand full of natural (and unnatural) disasters... nothing that was quite the scope of a world war. But the horrific nature of the terrorist attacks on 9/11 certainly ranks up there.
In fact, that's one of the most striking things about a terrorist attack of this nature. Psychologically, the impact is huge and widespread, but the vast majority of Americans were not directly impacted. I lost my job, and was unemployed for six months as a result of that day. While it was certainly a dark period in my life, second only to my divorce, it still pales in comparison to the experience of anyone who was there in New York, or DC (or on United 93), or knew someone who was involved or died.
What began as an example of the worst that humanity could do to itself turned into an example of the best of humanity before it was even over, in the sky over Pennsylvania, in the stairwells of the World Trade Center, and on the ground at the Pentagon. Think about the context of the political climate at that time. We still weren't over the very toxic election of 2000, fighting over two candidates that frankly were both poor choices.
For the better part of a year, there was some genuine desire for people to get along and help each other out. Even politicians were getting along and crossing the aisle, getting work done (even if some of it was reactionary and immoral... I'm looking at you, Patriot Act). Watching people come together in New York was inspiring, given its caricature reputation for being grumpy and mean, a la Ghostbusters II. In fact, the most remarkable thing about the stories of that day is that the terrorists were barely a footnote compared to the heroics of everyone from firemen to ordinary office workers doing extraordinary things.
Rightfully so, many of the documentaries and news programs about 9/11 focused on the efforts of the people who were there in that city block. Police and fire faced the absolute worst case scenario and performed as brilliantly as they could given the situation. For awhile at least, people all over the US were willing to vote for funding issues that supported the people who ran into burning houses or risked walking into a situation where a bad guy had a gun.
What followed was not always pretty. In the desire to make someone pay for the sheer evil of that day, Americans largely rubber-stamped a war against a country that had nothing to do with the terrorist attacks. The focus on remote portions of Afghanistan, where the real bad guys were, nearly disappeared. The cost in human lives and money has been astronomically high, and futures of sons and daughters, and unlike previous wars, mothers and fathers, have been erased. We've asked so much of our military families, and it might never be truly over.
If there's any one thing that I hope will come from this anniversary, it's that we're able to refocus on the very core values that demonstrated what made our nation great in the response to the unthinkable. To see people help each other out, without regard to race, ethnicity, religion, gender or sexual orientation... to really understand that none of us are all that different... that's the world I want to live in, and the one I want my son to inherit. We have a lot of work to do.
There was a kid interning at NBC that I saw on TV, who lost his father on United 93, and he really captured what I think is the best way to approach these anniversaries. He said that he doesn't stop to remember the end of a life every year, but rather he celebrates the lives that were. That strikes me as a fantastic way to remember the people lost, the people who are closest to the loss, and the people who continue to risk their lives on our behalf in the face of crime, war and disaster.
On a side note, I have to say that I'm really struck by the beautiful simplicity of the 9/11 Memorial in New York. It's really quite moving and I look forward to seeing it in person some day. I know there has been a ton of criticism and disagreement for years over what to do on that site, but I think they've made some good decisions to honor the dead, provide a historical record of what happened there, and rebuild.