Even a decade later, the feelings can flood back with a surprising, disturbing suddenness.
On this date 10 years ago, on a crystalline clear Tuesday morning, the initial news reports produced mostly a storm of confusion. An airplane had hit one of the twin towers of the World Trade Center.
What on earth could have happened? What kind of plane was it? How extensive was the damage?
And then, the shock. News helicopters that had been dispatched to get a look at the damage to the tower instead got a close-up view of another plane – a commercial jetliner – being flown directly into the second tower. It looked like it was going to go right through the building.
The shocks that followed seemed unrelenting. Recalling it all a decade later, the naked emotions come easily to the fore even as the precise chronology can feel a bit hazy. A third plane had hit the Pentagon, while a fourth had crashed somewhere in Pennsylvania. Then came the unimaginable – the collapse of the twin towers. Our nation was reeling. We all of us were shaky, dazed, wandering, emotionally if not literally, with little aim save reassurance.
Only those old enough to remember Pearl Harbor had known anything even remotely like this – and that had not been carried, almost live, on television.
This was war in the new millennium, up close and horrible.
On Sept. 11, 2001, what many of us did was get on the telephone. There was anger, confusion, assurance. There were tears, fears, prayers. And more phone calls.
We somehow believed that everything had changed forever on that horrible day.
For some, of course, the world would never be the same. Those who had loved ones killed in the towers or the Pentagon or aboard one of the planes would not be going about their business as usual anytime soon.
But what came as such an unexpected surprise for so many of us was how much, and how quickly, life returned to normal. At first, this could be as disturbing as it was unexpected. How could we get all worked up over something so simple as a traffic jam? Hadn’t we gained perspective, come to understand what really matters, on 9/11?
But after a time, our return to the everyday became a bit of a comfort, too. We Americans are nothing if not resilient. We’ve survived – and then thrived – after war, economic calamity, after internal unrest that shook us to our core. But always, we have risen and stood tall.
Even the political differences that soon enough took hold were something of a relief – at least when seen in one light. Working together to forge a better future has never been without disagreement. Some of the so-called founding fathers were also bitter opponents. Instead of holding hands and singing in harmony, they published sometimes vitriolic broadsides, often anonymously, supporting their own positions even as they derided those of their opponents.
When members of Congress stood together on the steps of the Capitol on the night of Sept. 11, 2001, and sang “God Bless America,” they offered the nation strength, hope, a kind of solidarity.
But a democracy is noisy by design. And there is nowhere that it is noisier than in our ever-changing, broad, wildly diverse nation. Lawmakers are supposed to work together, not to agree on everything.
As this anniversary approached, as reflections and remembrances refreshed our national consciousness, the citizens had a chance to look back – and to look forward.
We know what kind of a nation we’d wish to be. And we know, too, that we will never get there. That, more than anything else, is the quintessential American notion: We move forward. We grow, seek to improve, never rest. There is no better way to honor those killed 10 years ago today than to strive to remain true to that fundamentally American promise: building a more perfect union.