It only took a split second on that September day for everything to change. The sky was blue. It was one of those seemingly perfect mornings when we all went about our business with a little more spring in our steps. Who could be unhappy with the sun shining so magnificently and the weather showing the promise of cooler days ahead? When we saw that plane heading toward a building in the middle of New York City it didn’t make sense. We wondered if the pilot was lost, sick, having a heart attack. Once the plane hit without any attempt to adjust course a sickening feeling of horror began to slowly overtake us. By the time a second plane flew straight through the other tower, a third slammed into the Pentagon, and a fourth crashed into a field in Pennsylvania our national innocence had been shattered. While we have been attempting to deal with the aftermath of what happened fifteen years ago an entire generation of children has grown up under the specter of terror. September 11, 2001, was a purposeful attack on our psyches and the years have not yet healed us.
I used to live near Hobby Airport in Houston, Texas. I grew to love the sound of the airplanes moving over my home as they traveled to and fro. I liked to imagine where the people were going and what fun lay ahead for them. My girls and I often walked over to watch the planes taking off and landing. There were no barriers to our movements. We were free to stroll unencumbered into the departure areas and press our noses against the glass walls to watch the activities playing out on the tarmac. We often met our out of town guests as they exited the aircraft or sat talking with them until they departed. We didn’t pass through metal detectors or take off our shoes. We didn’t have tickets and we still moved in and out of the airport as though we owned it. After September 11, we would never again enjoy the luxury of using the airport as an adventurous destination on our leisurely walks. I would never be able to show my grandchildren the fun that their mothers and I had so often enjoyed.
I remember the silence that ensued for days after the attack. The sounds of the plane engines that had become so much a part of my routine were gone. It was eerie not to hear them and when they finally returned they were suddenly frightening. Air travel became a source of anxiety for me rather than a joyful experience. I became wary and watchful and admittedly nervous. Just getting through the long lines, the guards, the scanners became a distasteful chore. Understanding why such measures had to be taken added a hint of danger to what had before been so delightful. Post 9/11 children would take the inconveniences for granted, not knowing how free and easy travel had once been.
Our country would react to that horrific morning by engaging in a war that now seems never ending. We believed back then that we would slap a couple of terrorist hands and then resume our happy lives. Instead we are still fighting an elusive and shadowy enemy. We take down one group of terrorists and another is spawned. We are unsure of how to defeat those who would harm us so that we might return our world to a sense of normalcy. In fact we secretly wonder what normal is. For the young it is the reality of living under a constant threat and still managing to carry on as though nothing has happened. For those of us who witnessed those terrible events that will never fade in our memories it is a longing for a sense of peace and security that may never have actually been as concrete as we believed that it was.
The years have taken their toll on the world. Governments have toppled. Societies are warring. Here in our own country the wreckage of 9/11 revealed scars and disagreements that have been festering for decades. We want someone to care for us and maybe even make it all go away but we cannot seem to find solutions that are satisfactory to all of us. We argue over the effectiveness of policies and attempt to place blame. Where once we were rather naive and happy go lucky, now we are cynical and argumentative. The psychology of terror has slowly but surely done the work that it set out to do. We no longer feel as safe and strong and noble as we once did. Instead of concentrating on the root of our problems we now verbally attack one another.
A generation of children has grown up in this atmosphere. They are now in the early years of their adult lives, attending college, studying in high school or middle school. Social networking is as natural to them as making a phone call was to us. They get their news on the Internet. Cell phones are their libraries and means of communicating with their friends at one and the same time. They are subjected to a barrage of information and temptations all day long. The forces of terror and extremism attempt to radicalize them by playing on the confusion that young people so often experience. They can visit websites and watch videos that extol the virtues of jihadists and political fringe groups. They have easy access to dark ideas that continued to grow even after our best efforts to stop the terror that we witnessed on September 11.
Today we mostly go about our business trying not to think too much about what happened fifteen years ago. We remind ourselves that more people are killed in car accidents than by terrorists but each time we have to pass through metal detectors and open our purses for inspection just to watch a baseball game we are reminded of the dangers that might strike at any time. We tell ourselves that we won’t be bowed down by evil but we know that we have changed. We are less trusting and more cynical than we once were. We felt so innocent on that beautiful September morning only seconds before that plane did the unthinkable. Just like that our comfortable cocoons came crashing down and none of us would be quite the same.
I believe that the malaise that so many of us feel in this election season can be traced all the way back to that terrible day. We continue to search both for someone to blame and someone to be our hero. Thus far we can’t seem to agree on who is who. That is the crux of our terror. Osama bin Laden would smile to see us warring with one another. It is what he hoped to accomplish. He often said as much in his hateful videos.
We took away the debris from the September 11 disaster. We honored and buried the dead. We built memorials lest we forget. Now it is time to heal our souls and show our children and the world that the terrorists have always been wrong. They can never take away our freedom and our strength.