Of course I remember where I was and what I was doing when I found out. Everyone who lived it remembers. I was walking out of Morgan Hall on the University of Alabama campus. My eight-o’clock class had just ended, where we discussed Act I of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It’s funny how memory works. I can’t remember the specifics from any other class from that entire semester.
Groups of students were huddled together outside the door and down the steps, whispering to one another, arms around shoulders, heads bowed. I remember thinking that it looked odd. As I passed one group on the way to my car, I distinctly heard the word “attack,” but the word didn’t convey any worry to my mind, and certainly did not convey the true magnitude of that word in that moment. I was still happily living in the pre-9/11 world over one hour in.
Looking back, I am grateful all of this happened before the advent of the ubiquitous smartphone. Otherwise, someone would have casually checked Facebook during class and learned the scoop. Everyone would have known in an instant. The new immediacy of event-occurrence to information-transmission is not always a blessing. I had over one hour of happy ignorance before I started the car and turned on the radio. Within five minutes, though, I knew the world had changed.
I always disagreed with Alan Jackson’s take on 9/11. The world did not stop turning on that September day. Rather, it started spinning into overdrive. The country had been rocking merrily along in the wake of the Clinton years – good times by most accounts. We had a new President, gas was cheap, and the economy was stable. The previous decade was still fresh in our minds, and, let’s face it, the 90s were pretty great. We knew what terrorists were, but they lurked in the shadows of Middle-Eastern countries. They did not show their faces on bright and sunny Manhattan mornings.
When the ugly truth of the existence of humanity’s most evil was exposed that September day, the nation was shocked out of its post-90s blissful dream state. We were suddenly wide awake. We were instantly unified in purpose and in rage. Whoever did this was going to pay, and pay dearly. As the world grew infinitely more complex, our worldviews simplified. We were very simply one nation, under God, against anyone and anything against us. We were all patriots. I flew an American flag from the back right window of my silver Honda Accord for three months until it became too tattered to fly respectfully, and nobody had to ask why.
The world kept right on spinning as we cleared the rubble, started wars, and began the decade-long manhunt for the one responsible. It’s eleven years later and memorials have been built and dedicated. Bin Laden is dead, shot in the face. All of the evidence suggests that the war on terrorism is a success. The seemingly inevitable second attack never happened. As we ungrudgingly remove our shoes at the airport, we accept that homeland security protocols are just the new way of life. After all, they’ve worked so far, right?
This year at the ground zero memorial ceremony there were no speeches by politicians. The crowd, consisting largely of family and friends of the dead, could be numbered in the hundreds instead of the thousands, like in years past. The nation’s collective mourning period is over, it seems, and it now appears we are, at last, moving on – not fully healed, but healing. The physical scars are long gone. In their places are reflecting pools, a shiny new Pentagon, and the tallest building in the Western hemisphere. We move on and we rebuild, and I pray that we never forget.
More than that, though, I pray that our nation never forgets that we endure only by the grace of God. Bombs and bullets will likely never destroy America. External foes have been trying to break us for over 200 years, but without success. We defeated the British. The Nazis were annihilated. The Soviet empire fell. Al Qaeda is splintered and on the run. The next threat, be it China, Iran, or a currently unknown danger, will also fail. I am convinced that the greatest threat has been and always will be internal decay. We are more than capable of destroying ourselves. Sadly, the nation founded as “one nation under God” seems intent on leaving its first love. Sometimes I wonder if God’s patience is wearing thin.