We all know what today represents. At least, if you're of a certain age you know what today is. Today, 11 years ago, on a Tuesday just like this one, the United States of America was fundamentally changed forever.
September 11th, 2001. The Twin Towers fell. The Pentagon was hit. Flight 93 crashed into the ground.
It seems... well, it seems closer this year than it has in previous years. Maybe it's because today is almost exactly like 9/11 was... today is a Tuesday. The skies are clear. The weather is beautiful. Life just goes on like any normal day.
9/11 has been talked about at length in the years since it happened. There's nothing really new to say about that day though there is plenty to say about what has followed after that day.
What I'm going to say from this point on is just my opinion, my feelings, and is not meant to offend anyone... but you people know me by this point: I'll say what I say and do it rather bluntly. Turn away now if you're squeamish.
All right with that done, let me get the obvious out of the way... the infamous "Where were you on 9/11?"
Where was I? Let me start with the day before, 9/10. It was parent-teacher conference day. My mother had visited my teacher and my classes, with me in tow, to get a feeling of how I was doing in school. At that point we had only been in the area for eight months and I was in 7th grade. This was my first fall semester in Wetumpka and she had been bugging me about how I was doing, how I was adjusting... I was 12, going on 13, and I wasn't exactly forthcoming so my mother asked my teachers-with me standing there-and I had to be there, embarrassed, and listen to them assess my performance in class.
The only teacher that had a problem with me was my English teacher, Mrs. Eutsey who was the most imposing short woman I have ever known. She would carry around a yardstick called "Love" and if she saw you slacking off, messing around, or not doing your work, she would slap you on the hand with it and tell you she was "Giving you Love." It was amusing to me. I never got hit with that yardstick but Mrs. Eutsey did have a problem with me... she wanted me to speak up more in class. I was a quiet kid in 7th grade.
I remember 9/10 very well. I remember 9/11 in explicit detail.
After waking up and complaining about going to school (I had just gotten off a three day weekend, who wouldn't be bitter about seeing that go away?), eating my breakfast of wheat Chex, and being dropped off at school, I reported to my first class of the day, Mrs. Eutsey's. I loved her class... it wasn't chaotic and it wasn't loud. It was a pretty quiet class. Plus, I got done with the work so fast that I had plenty of time to read. I was dressed in jeans and my
orange Florida Gator t-shirt. I still have that shirt and the glasses I
was wearing that day (both secure in my car). The day started out pretty normal.
Reading was primarily on my mind when I got there to class. I immediately asked to go to the library to see if one of the books I was desperate to read (Black Beauty... I was young, give me a break) was back there. Mrs. Eutsey, not normally one to let people go to the library at the beginning of class (due to other students propensity to just stay in the library and not come back to class) let me. I think it was because she felt kinda guilty for having to give my mother a report on me with me being right there... I don't know. I never asked.
I went to the library with the understanding that I was to be back in 20 minutes. I had my trusty Timex sports watch and so I told her, without a doubt, I'd be back in 20 minutes or less. She let me go and so I went... I got to the library and looked for my book. It wasn't there but, I figured since I had some time, I could look for some other books to read... in classic Zach fashion I got distracted and lost amongst the worlds of fiction around me.
Soon enough I realized I was running behind. I grabbed a favorite of mine that I wanted to re-read (Where The Red Fern Grows), checked it out, and booked it back to Mrs. Eutsey's class hoping that I wouldn't get in trouble. I stealthily opened the door, closed it quietly, and made my way to Mrs. Eutsey's desk. I started to explain why I was late, the book firmly in my hand, but within a few seconds I realized she wasn't looking at me.
Her eyes were on the TV.
The TVs in the junior high were... well, junky. These things were 1980s era wall mounted TVs. Not real pretty to look at and not on... ever. They never really used them. I never knew they worked let alone that they got cable. The TV was on and on CNN.
The image? A burning building. I didn't recognize it but I didn't really need to. The captioning on the bottom of the image told me all I needed to know.
It was a tragedy... horrifying, really. At this point, that's what it was being billed as... some poor plane, full of people, had crashed into a building in New York City. How could someone not see a building? How could that happen? The TV was muted so I guess we, in junior high, didn't really understand the true horror that was happening before us.
Everyone's eyes were on it though. I went back to my desk, which was facing right towards the TV and in front of the class, and I tried to do my work. I saw the second plane hit the Twin Towers live on CNN, as did a good number of people in our class, and that was when this tragedy became more than an accident.
We were lucky, I guess... since the TV was muted we were spared the false hope that it was just an explosion, something leftover from the first plane. I saw that plane come flying in and then the explosion a moment later... that was that.
Things from there become dominated by the news coverage. The teachers, the students, everybody... we didn't bother pretending to do much work. Oh sure, it was assigned to us, but the TVs were on in every class and the images, the bottom lines, the destruction, the death, the explosions... all of it was there.
I got home and we just sat and watched the TV... the news... trying to piece together why this was happening. What was happening, who had done it... I think it was that night when I first heard what would become the best descriptor for 9/11 for my generation.
"This is Pearl Harbor for this generation," is how it went. Historically, I would agree with that comparison.
I was born Oct. 13, 1988. I was around for the fall of the Berlin Wall. I was around for the fall of the Soviet Union. Two momentous events in the history of the world and this country. I was around for those... but I didn't witness them. I witnessed 9/11, from near the beginning all the way to today.
11 years ago today, upon seeing that second plane hit the Twin Towers, I
knew from that point on that this wasn't an accident. Something was
wrong, seriously wrong, and the question became "How bad is it?" as
opposed to "What's happening?" The latter got asked at the end of the
day, after it was all said and done... the former got asked from the
second plane hit onward.
I remember the day before. I remember the day of. I don't remember the day after. I don't hear a lot of people talk about the day after. I wonder if they, like I, don't remember it either.
9/11 changed America forever... and not for the better. You want to say it is, to somehow make the lives lost that day and since then in the name of that day not be wasted... but on a national scale I can't say it has made things better. They feel worse.
Do you remember the weeks and months after 9/11? It's kind of a blur that time period. I think my mind was just rendered incapable of storing anymore memories related to that day. I don't know. I just remember how everyone was so together... together we stand, together we rise, together this and together that. Football teams like the New York Giants and Jets, they became national darlings. The college football season... I don't even know what happened that year. The NFL though... I remember the Patriots vs. the Rams. I remember the "tuck rule" game that got the Patriots to the Superbowl despite the fact the Raiders should have been there. I wanted the Rams to win (The Greatest Show on Turf, Torry Holt, Issac Bruce, Marshall Faulk, and Kurt Warner) but they had no shot.
The nation had rallied behind the Patriots and this no name backup QB, Tom Brady, taken in the sixth round from Michigan. And they won. Of course.
Amazing how short that "togetherness" really lasted after 9/11. We are, after all, a nation of individuals. Soon our individual attitudes, wants, and personalities reasserted themselves and our nation of "togetherness" quickly turned back into our nation of "it's all about me".
Which brings me back to Pearl Harbor. It was a defining moment for a generation. It brought the USA into WWII... it helped end the Nazis once and for all. It gave birth to a time of progress and growth. It was an era where, despite the loss of innocence due to those attacks by the Japanese, that generation strove to get back what it lost even though it really couldn't... they made the effort. They hoped for a better tomorrow and they tried their best to make it that way.
9/11 was a defining moment for my generation. It spawned the war on terror, taking place in two countries and in other spots around the world. The loss of life is not comparable to WWII... we have lost fewer American soldiers in two recent wars than WWII. But I feel we haven't really made any progress or shown any growth as a nation.
We are a country trapped in the memory of 9/11.
I'm sure there are tons of psychologists and head shrinks who would disagree. I'm sure there are some who would agree. I don't care either way. I feel like we're stuck in that day... this is our Groundhog Day (Bill Murray classic) from hell. And it's our own fault that we're stuck here.
"Why?" you ask. We continue to obsess over that day. I think we, as a nation, suffer from some form of survivor's guilt... we can't forgive ourselves for not seeing it. The revelations that have come out in the years since, about how this was a credible threat that was pretty much ignored, makes me more confident this is the case.
We can't seem to forget. I'm not saying we should, but I am saying that we need to move on. Every year on this day we see reports, articles, and more on 9/11. It's a deluge of 9/11 related things, a flood that drowns us all. There's nothing really new to learn about what happened.
But how it affected people? That's a media goldmine. 9/11 will have effects on people for decades at the very least. There will always be a new angle to talk about as to the effects 9/11 has had on people. It's the curse of our world today, constantly connected... the need to have something to talk about 24/7. Once a year it manifests itself in the worst way possible on 9/11.
It's been over 70 years since December 7th, 1941. The attacks on Pearl Harbor hardly get any press now. How many people actually remember the day? Most of my generation doesn't. It was before our time. Yet, the two vastly different generations, has in common so much. An unprovoked attack. A shocking tragedy. A horror that has seared itself into our brains forever. Wars to fight. Service to be rendered. Death. Sadness.
The difference? Whereas Pearl Harbor rocketed the USA into WWII and into the growth of the country in a variety of different ways, it seems as though 9/11 has left stunted our growth. The best comparison I can come up with is this: Pearl Harbor was the waking of a sleeping giant... whereas 9/11 was the day said giant got beat up by an inferior opponent.
In the case of Pearl Harbor, we responded to those attacks swiftly and in force... we didn't take it lying down. With 9/11, it seems like we've tried to direct the anger, guilt, sadness, and rage at our enemies... and we've come up with a half hearted effort.
I'm not saying Pearl Harbor made us a better country overnight. It didn't. I'm not saying it was all rosy... it wasn't. The Japanese Interment camps of WWII, the atom bomb, the travesties committed during WWII in the name of freedom, the tons of death, the rampant racism... the list goes on. The post WWII era was not as nice and pretty as we make it out to be. As a society, we like to idolize that era. I'm guilty of that.
But morals and values weren't lost after Pearl Harbor. They were tested, they were stressed, they were put through the ringer... but the WWII generation came back from the war and tried to reestablish the innocence that was lost.
This generation has tried to do that but we have failed. Partially because we can't get out of our own way and partially because the government is just as obsessed with bringing everything back to 9/11. 9/11 has become almost an obligation... every politician has to have something to say about it. Everyone has to tell the story of where they were that day, year after year...
I think it's holding us back. I think it's divisive because, like every major event that happens in any country, there are always those conspiracy theorists who believe something more sinister happened than what has been presented to the public. It's worse now than it's ever been thanks to the internet. There are those that believe our government let 9/11 happen to force us into war with Iraq. I certainly don't believe that nor will I ever... but it's still such a divisive idea.
Further, the things that we as a country have done in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are not things I'm proud of. That's probably no different than the WWII generation. But where the difference lies, I think, is how post WWII the freedoms that we took so for granted became all the more sweeter... we as a country relished and cherished those freedoms following Pearl Harbor.
After 9/11, the sentiment was there for a little while but instead of letting freedom reign, we've put shackles on those freedoms. Airport security is now up to ridiculous levels, it's an even bigger pain in the butt, and it's not that much more effective. Our relationships with other nations are no longer built on friendship or trust, but on paranoia. "Are they helping the enemy?" We ask and we seek evidence to back up the claim.
Some of us have taken to painting all Muslims as "extremists" while most of America is put off by them, whereas before 9/11 they were just another religious group. Afterwards, they have become an easy target for those looking to hate.
There's not a person in my generation who doesn't know someone who fought in the wars. I've had some friends go overseas and fight. Some have died. Some have lived. And the ones that return, I feel as though we've disappointed them. They went through hell and back to fight for us and come back to... this.
The WWII generation defined Pearl Harbor. They used it as a rallying cry to make the world a better place... sure they didn't do good things with it all the time but they used it as a launching off point to let the world know that freedom wasn't just something we as a country take for granted, we cherish it, we relish it, and we will not only lead by example but lead by action. The post war years were good to this country. The morals and values of that society were strengthened; yes, they did break down towards the end of the 50s and crumbled in the 60s, but the intervening years served as a testament to how strong and resilient this country was. It showed how strong and resilient that generation was.
The 9/11 generation... those of us who define our lives as before or after that event... we have used that day as an excuse. It has defined us, we have not defined it. We haven't cherished or relished the freedoms that we took for granted, we have shackled them. We have lost our innocence and we made no attempt to get it back... we have taken our anger out on our enemies and we have done so in a very half hearted, ineffective manner. The wars we engaged in were run messily. We have grown divided as a country and we continue to widen that divide, day by day. Whether it's religion or political party affiliation, or race, or creed, or what have you, we pick a side, offer no room for compromise, and we go to war.
America, as a nation, is weak. I type the words with just as much shame as anger. All the lives that have been effected by 9/11, all the people who have fought for us, have died for us, have sacrificed for us... we've not done much with it. Instead of making things better we have made them worse. We've lost so much and gained so little since 9/11. It seems that every time we make a desperate bid to make things better, we just mess things up more.
The legacy of the WWII generation, those that were there for Pearl Harbor and everything after that... it's a largely positive one. Perhaps it's because we have idolized them for so long, perhaps it's because they were the last generation of Americans to fight in a world war... whatever the case may be, they are looked upon in a positive light. Their legacy is one that can't be changed or undone at this point.
The legacy of the 9/11 generation is still being written. I acknowledge that things can change, that people can change, but it doesn't look like my generation is going to be seen by future generations in a positive light. We're leaving an unholy mess for the generation after us and I don't know how many people see that. So focused on our short term goals, on taking out our national anger on something, that we didn't look long term... we didn't plan ahead. My generation will pay for that some but the next generation will pay for that oh so much more.
I don't know if we have it in us to change for the better. The loss of innocence, the scars that we carry... we have fallen short of our potential. We have fallen short of the expectations placed upon us and we've tried, darn it all we've tried, but the nation is in worse shape today than it was prior to 9/11.
Now, I can here what you guys are saying "Way to go and dump on your generation, Zach." That's just one side of the coin, I grant you. There are positives that have been accomplished since 9/11... but to me they seem to pale in comparison to the negatives. They aren't as notable. They don't seem as important.
You know what the worst part of being in this generation is? We can relive 9/11 anytime we want. Moment by moment, bit by bit, the entire day is on the internet. Youtube, in particular, has all the videos you will ever need to see about that day. For educational purposes, I can understand it... but I don't use it for educaitional purposes.
I use it to remind myself of the moment where it all changed, at least for me. It happened on that second plane hit into the Twin Towers. It's a short little clip and I don't need more than that. Three minutes of my life that represents 11 years of memories... I can just watch that clip and remember everything else that comes after it. It's vivid... it makes me cry.
I shouldn't do it but I do. At the time I didn't shed tears. I sat there, in shock, and watched it all unfold... but I've shed plenty of tears in years since.
I wish I could say crying helped but it doesn't. I wish I could say blogging it all out helps, but it doesn't. I wish I could say eating food helps but it doesn't. I've done all those things today... I'm eating a bowl of cereal right now (my go to coping mechanism, food) that I don't need. I wish to high heaven I could say making this into some sort of fictional story would help but I tried that last year... felt like complete crap while writing it. That piece has never seen the light of day and never will.
I don't know how to really cope with it. You'd think, in the intervening years, I'd have figured it out by now. It's not like I suffered personally in the matter... I haven't. But I visited Ground Zero in 2005... I have footage of it stored away. I don't look at it. I feel a profound sense of shame about it all. I felt awkward while there, awkward while in the church nearby that had such a beautiful memorial... I felt then as I do now: I don't deserve to be on that ground. My feet aren't meant for it. My eyes shouldn't see it. My ears shouldn't hear the sounds of it.
I don't know how to put it behind me. I don't know how to define it. I just know that as a generation, we've messed this up. We haven't done right by the people who died that day and have died in the name of that day since. How does one make up for that?
No clue. I have no answers. Perhaps that's the worst feeling of all about today... the helplessness. It feels like I can't do anything to make things better just like it did in 7th grade. I can vote now. I can drive now. I can do a lot of things now that I couldn't do in 7th grade... and yet, the feeling of helplessness is the same. The world will keep spinning in whatever direction it chooses and I'm just along for the ride it seems.
That's all I got. Thanks for reading. Good night.