I remember this because I slept in. Tuesday was Laundry Day for us back then, the only day of the week both my wife and I had off. We would go to Blockbuster (still a thing in 2001), rent 4 movies, and spend the day watching them while we sorted, folded, and schlepped clothes up and down from our 3rd floor apartment to the laundry room in the basement. Our oldest kid wasn’t 3 yet, and it was him who woke me up.
“Daddy,” he said, still rubbing sleep from his eyes, “cartoons won’t work.”
Grumpily, I tossed the sheet off of me and stumbled out into the living room. Sure enough, instead of his usual PBS fare, the TV instead showed what I thought was the demolition of some building in Chicago. I grabbed the remote and started thumbing through channels to find something to appease him, only to find the same smoldering image on every station. Then I read the news ticker across the bottoms of the screen, and I immediately rush back into the bedroom.
“Love, wake up, you need to come see this.”
No movies were rented by us that day. Like every other American, we watched the news all day in a sort of awe-struck horror. At one point I walked across the street to pick up something from the convenience store, and I was shocked by the silence. No cars on the road. No planes in the sky despite being just a few miles from one of the busiest airports in the world. The whole country came to a standstill.
By coincidence, I am flying today, the 15th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. As I sip my Starbucks in the terminal, the news shows those low-definition images again of what we now call Ground Zero. We’ve once again gotten used to such scenes only including foreign faces, so to see Americans streaked with soot and blood shocks me just as it did on that beautiful, quiet, horrible day. The talking heads pivot the story to the upcoming election, and how each of the candidates plan to speak about it. I can already imagine how those speeches will go, so I turn my attention to boarding my own flight.
It is strange to me, to think I have lived through an event that will forever be in the history books, right along side Pearl Harbor, Gettysburg, and Lexington. It deserves to be, because it was the day that America was shown that there are people in the world who do not view us the way we view ourselves. To be blunt, we see ourselves as superheroes, mighty yet benevolent. 9/11 showed us how untrue that daydream truly is.
Sadly the realization didn’t stick.
This is the lost lesson of 9/11. We had a chance to understand what America truly is: an empire, no different from Rome or Britannia or any of the others throughout history. Yet as the intervening 15 years has shown, we haven’t learned. We want to have the power of empire but keep this veneer of heroism, but chaos is the only result that can come from such self-delusion.
Will we learn? Can we become the heroes, behave as such? Or will we become bullies in mind as well as fact? Only time will tell.