Seems like a long time ago; seems like yesterday. Actually we’re in that awkward period of historical memory in which it’s too soon to see 9/11 as History Channel fodder and too late to feel it freshly. It was 21 months ago; life moves on; we don’t talk about “Where were you?” anymore.
And yet it seems that everything that is happening in the world right now is related to 9/11. President Bush meeting with the new head of the Palestinian Authority and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of Israel, in Aqaba, Jordan: That is about 9/11. Mr. Bush had no intention of going into the long chain yank that is the Mideast . . . until 9/11, which forced the toppling of the Afghan regime, the U.S. counterassault on the Taliban and terrorism, the invasion of Iraq and the toppling of Saddam. All of that came out of 9/11. And Mr. Bush is pushing a Mideast roadmap because he knows what all but children know: 9/11 grew from, was gestated in, the intense hatred of the Arab-Israeli conflict.
President Bush as nation-builder: That is 9/11. He suggested when he ran for president that international nation-building efforts were presumptuous and perhaps hubristic. All changed. Mr. Bush speaking last week to Arab leaders when he didn’t know his remarks were being broadcast, speaking of what “Almighty God” expects of them. That kind of fervor—a lot of that is traceable to 9/11. In an interview two years ago, three months before 9/11, Mr. Bush told me of his recent meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Their talk had turned personal, and Mr. Bush spoke of his understanding of the nature of Christianity and the meaning of the cross. Mr. Bush shows the impulses of the evangelist: When something has saved your life and has the added benefit—you are certain—of being true, you want to spread it around. But those impulses have come out more publicly, less embarrassedly or self-protectively, after 9/11.
The debate over the Homeland Security bill, its cost and adequacy: That is 9/11. Fears that the pursuit of security will result in a constriction of civil liberties: 9/11. The rift with France and Germany, the closer ties with Britain, the official return of members of the military as figures of respect, the resurgence of American patriotism: 9/11.
The bloated national budget: 9/11, for two reasons. One is the cost of security and defense, the other is Mr. Bush’s reluctance to fight Congress on spending when an overall preservation of national political unity is his goal. The Republican Party staying institutionally mum on budget deficits: 9/11. Whatever it takes in an age of rising stakes.
September 11 made it impossible for the American government and America’s elected leaders—all of them, senators, congressmen—to continue to ignore the issue of weapons of mass destruction and those who would wield them. “It doesn’t show up in the polls,” a Democratic legislator told me in 1997, explaining why President Clinton did not seriously address it.
It’s in the polls now.
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Who would have thought that day, who knew that morning, at 8:45 a.m., for instance, three minutes before the first plane struck, that everything in our lives was about to change? “Expect the unexpected,” as the journalist Harrison Salisbury said near the end of his life when asked what he’d learned from history.
Someone speaking of the shooting of John Kennedy once mused on the moment when the trigger was pulled and the bullet launched. That instant bore so much weight of subsequent history that it became a kind of warp in time, a moment whose weight was so much greater than its duration that it was like a collapsing of time, a special lost moment of gravity, like a black hole in space.
I think 9/11 is like that. People are still changing from it, being affected by it. There are those who have wondered why 9/11 was so cataclysmic, compared with, say, the bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993, by essentially the same people with the same motives and intentions. One answer is that on 9/11 almost 3,000 people died, and eight years before the number was six. Another is that the Pentagon was in effect bombed on 9/11. America has two great capitals, of politics and money, and both capitals were hit.
Both answers are true. But truest I think is this: The first time the towers didn’t fall. The first time they were damaged and unchanged. They were blacked with smoke. We cleaned them up.
We took it—some of us anyway—as a warning. The second time—that was not a warning. That was war. And a war shockingly begun, with two great skyscrapers crumbling to the ground.
That was then. New York is rebuilding downtown and taxing uptown. The national story line has changed from trauma to triumph, at least right now. A new Mideast peace process has begun, and there is perhaps a sense that this time, after all we and others have been through the past two years, maybe it can be got as right as . . . well, as it can be got.
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New Yorkers themselves have returned to fighting with each other. There’s been plenty to fight over, from the new taxes to the mayor’s new antismoking laws, which are not so much a policy as a non sequitur—New York is in crisis, let’s ban smoking! And there is the declaration of the organizations of World Trade Center families-of-victims that there should not be a statue of the firemen at the WTC memorial site. Three hundred forty-three of them died that day, but to commemorate their sacrifice would be “hierarchical.” They want it clear that no one was better than anyone else, that all alike were helpless, victims.
But that is not true; it is the opposite of the truth. The men and women working in the towers were there that morning, and died. The firemen and rescue workers—they weren’t there, they went there. They didn’t run from the fire, they ran into the fire. They didn’t run down the staircase, they ran up the staircase. They didn’t lose their lives, they gave them.
This is an important disagreement, because memorials teach. They teach the young what we, as a society, celebrate, hold high, honor. A statue of a man is an assertion: It asserts that his behavior is worthy of emulation. To leave a heroic statue of the firemen out of a WTC memorial would be as dishonest as it would be ungenerous, and would yield a memorial that is primarily about victimization. Which is not what that day was about, as so much subsequent history attests.
But go tell some New Yorkers. They’re all arguing. September 11 didn’t change everything.