Monday, September 11, 2006

Five Years Later

It's been five years since that Tuesday morning when planes driven by terrorists slammed into the twin towers of the World Trade Center in Manhattan and the Pentagon. I remember being rousted awake by my friend Louis, who burst into my room and shouted, "You need to come downstairs and watch the news, now."

We all did. At the time, I was living in the fraternity house on Oregon Avenue in Steubenville, Ohio. There were remnants of the weekend's partying, which had stretched into Monday evening, all around us, but our attention was locked on the television screen. The first tower to be hit was smoldering, and we watched as a second airplane full of people crashed into the second, sending out a huge plume of smoke, debris, and flame.

A year later I was standing in a remembrance ceremony at Fort Benning. I was in basic combat training, my head was shaved, and I was wearing thick Army-issue spectacles and a new set of BDUs. The ceremony was held in the still-dark dawn, and we watched the images from September 11 scroll across a huge projection screen, with inspirational music as accompaniment.

Sometimes people ask me if I joined the Army because of September 11. I've thought about it a lot, and my answer is usually, "I didn't join because of September 11. But if it hadn't been for September 11, I wouldn't have joined."

The anger I felt while I watched the twin towers collapse on live television was certainly the catalyst that drew me to the recruiter's office once I'd finished college. I suppose if that hadn't been there, I would probably have wound up with a job at some small-town newspaper, content to live out the next years covering city council meetings, school boards, and little league games.

As much as my life has changed due to 9/11, it's impossible to have been completely unaffected by what happened that day. For good or ill, that day set into motion the rapid changes in global society we're currently swept up in. The very word American has taken on new and strange meanings around the world, and our military is still engaged in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The event has also served to further polarize our nation. Debate and discussion over national policy has been reduced to such pithy non-sayings such as "stay the course" and "fight or flight" and "cut and run." Gallup runs monthly polls asking American citizens if they "feel safer," we take our shoes off after waiting in huge lines at our airports, and politicians of all stripes cite 9/11 as a main reason they should be elected to whatever office.

Today, five years after the event itself, people across the country will take time to remember what happened that day and to think of the thousands who died. But I think it's also important to remember the fact that September 11 did not happen in a vacuum -- rather, 9/11 was one point on a continuum of world events. There were circumstances that led to it happening, and it has had an indelible mark on the time that has followed it. While we remember the victims who died that day, we should also be mindful of those who have died since, but no less directly because of it.

This includes the civilians and military working that day in the targeted wing of the Pentagon; the passengers aboard American Airlines Flight 11, United Airlines Flight 175, American Airlines Flight 77, and United Airlines Flight 93; the civilians, police officers, firefighters, and first-responders who perished at Ground Zero in Manhattan; Pat Tillman and all those who have died fighting in Afghanistan; and the more than 2,000 who have died in Iraq.

In November 2001, Jean-Marie Colombani wrote in Paris' Le Monde: "We are all Americans! We are all New Yorkers, just as surely as John F. Kennedy declared himself to be a Berliner in 1962 when he visited Berlin."

That sentiment has largely disappeared.

Today, when you remember where you were on 9/11, remember also what havoc that day has wreaked on our country and our world, and what we have spent in human lives in the years that have followed. In a very real sense, it's still September 11, 2001.


The Donovan has a 9/11 post round-up here.