Fourteen years ago, the nation and world were still reeling from a morning forever burnished in our memories.
On Sept. 13, 2001, the smoke and ash were still hanging over Manhattan, the embers of the Pentagon were smoldering and the smell of jet fuel hung in the air near Shanksburg, Pa. The shock was just as palpable two days after the terrorist attacks as Americans tried to fathom what had happened and how our world had changed. Our vulnerability had been exposed, and our national security would never again be taken for granted.
To many, it doesn’t seem that long ago. As news highlights of the burning twin towers play, it seems like 14 weeks, not years. Time zooms by quickly when everyday life intercedes and world events unfold at a dizzying pace: The invasion of Afghanistan. The bombing of Baghdad. Two wars that dragged on for more than a decade, the final shots yet to be fired in either. Osama bin Laden broadcasting brazenly from his cave before being killed a decade later, then new terrorists rising to take his place.
At home, a nation wept, prayed and tied yellow ribbons to trees for our troops. It turned inward against such threats with airport screeners and backpacks searched outside public events. Now a new tower stands where the others fell.
It is worth noting such events whizzing by provide a full narrative in the lives of those just now coming of age in an Age of Terrorism. Children born on or around Sept. 11, 2001, are now high school freshmen, three years from a diploma, seven years from adulthood. To them, there has been no other United States, no pre-9/11 mentality to recall fondly. To their older siblings, memories of that day may be mere flashes in the background, a hum they were only vaguely aware of, as were news reports of the Pearl Harbor attack or Kennedy assassination to previous generations.
In what kind of world are they growing up? And what will it look like when they teach their own children about an event they didn’t witness?
We can’t accuse these youth of forgetting something they never knew. The rest of us, though, have begun to show signs of losing something special that carried us through that awful time.
Those who lived through the post-9/11 days and weeks recall, amid the carnage and horror, Americans uniting for the first time in decades against a common foe. Political differences briefly faded as opposing parties came together to back the early salvos in the war on terrorism. Support for the mission in Afghanistan and creation of the Office of Homeland Security was bipartisan. The gulf of ideology was, for a while, bridged as national leaders closed ranks behind the administration’s efforts.
That spell of camaraderie didn’t last, of course. The Iraq War and subsequent elections overrode the feeling of shared sacrifice and a common mission that sprouted when the towers fell. However brief, though, it offered a glimpse of the rare hope Americans can join hands as one and face hardships together.
Yet political winds always are fleeting, even in wartime, so it’s not a surprise that unity faded. Another change is a bit more disturbing.
In the frightful moments after the planes struck, the courage of police officers and firefighters in New York was on full display. Those who ran toward Ground Zero and into burning buildings as others fled showed a human valor seldom seen, earning admiration from all. In anniversary celebrations since, bells are tolled and flags are unfurled for public safety officers who lost or risked their lives to save others. NYPD and NYFD emblems were seen everywhere as a nation put its civil servants on a pedestal alongside military heroes.
But in the last year or more, a string of incidents involving police confrontations with citizens has turned the views of many against the men and women in blue. Right or wrong, some members of the minority community see police as the enemy, often painting cops as profilers, bullies or racists.
Officials and community members in Gainesville and Hall County have worked to avoid such distrust. Recent meetings among officeholders, the sheriff and police chiefs, their top officers and members of the minority community have kept a dialogue going, even if the truce seems uneasy amid scattered complaints of police abuse.
Those born and raised since 9/11 have only lived in this world, not the more innocent one before that day their parents and grandparents remembered Friday. They likely can’t fathom a time when politicians of both parties held hands and prayed on the Capitol steps, or when police, firefighters and rescue responders were universally revered. That’s a history they can only read about now.
On one hand, it’s best they were spared the trauma the rest of us experienced in watching people leap to their deaths from burning buildings on live TV. But they also missed out on the nation’s heartfelt response, when Americans were at their best when the world was at its worst. Today’s young people have yet to see their country rally behind its leaders and protectors as it did for a time.
As the years roll on and 2001 becomes a distant speck on the historic horizon, generations to come won’t fully know a day when the country and the world changed forever. But whether that change ultimately will be for the better or for the worse largely will be up to them.