I thought it was appropriate to reflect on the horrific tragedy that occurred exactly 20 years ago today, but I wasn’t sure quite how to approach it. Post a token picture? Lament U.S. foreign policy? Rally the troops against the jihadis?
Lots of people will post pictures of the twin towers, looking to score a bunch of the ubiquitous “thumbs-ups” on their Instagram posts. It felt appropriate to keep the memory of the event alive so we could learn from history and honor the dead, but I wasn’t sure quite how to do that. So I humbly offer this:
I was a young Marine back in 2001, stationed in Camp Lejeune on North Carolina’s Atlantic coast. “Swamp Lejeune,” they called it. Or “Camp Lagoon.” Back then, the surrounding area was nothing but titty bars, tattoo parlors, and Baptist churches.
On September 11th, I was in the Alpha Company headquarters building, working in the room where we stored, issued, and managed the company’s tactical radios. We were listening to the radio, because radio was still a thing back then.
The news announcer broke in and reported that a plane had flown into one of the towers of the World Trade Center. I laughed, thinking that some private pilot had probably gotten drunk and flown his bug smasher into a sky scraper. A few minutes later, the announcer came back on and said that another plane had hit the second tower.
I got serious pretty quick, because then I realized that it wasn’t an accident. I went home to our small apartment where my young wife was watching the news. We saw smoke pouring from the twin towers. We saw them collapse. We heard about another plane crashing into the Pentagon. We heard about another one crashing into a Pennsylvania farm field.
Many people died that day—some killed in the plane crashes, some incinerated in the skyscrapers, some jumping to their deaths to avoid the flames.
Many died when they ran into the smoke-filled towers to rescue those who were trapped—and then the towers collapsed. Some rallied and took a plane back from hijackers, giving their lives to save as many lives as they could.
The United States sent troops into Afghanistan to destroy the training camps where the Saudi attackers trained. It went into Iraq to remove a tyrannical government. It remained at war for 20 years, waging two, failed counter-insurgencies and supporting corrupt and inept “democratic” governments. Many, many more people died. We just ended the war in Afghanistan in about the most pathetic and ignoble manner imaginable.
So what do we take away from September 11th, 2001? Do we stoke the cultural memory with everlasting hatred? Do we appreciate the fact that we finally just ripped the band-aid off and got the whole mess over with so we can get back to fighting each other here at home?
For me, our uncertain political environment is proving to be distracting and unsettling. It’s hard to cultivate the collective memory of the United States when we’re not very united. Maybe we should look back at September 11th and remember and learn and be sorry and be thankful.
We should remember the horrific tragedy. We should remember the screams of the victims and the heroism that was displayed on that day and on many days thereafter.
We should learn that life is dangerous and uncertain. We should learn that a society can only thrive when it maintains a virtuous character.
We should be sorry for our frequent focus on trivial matters. We should be sorry for the way we often treat each other. (If the shoe doesn’t fit, as they say…)
We should be thankful that our society had people brave enough to sacrifice everything to save others. We should be thankful for every day that we are given and make the most of every opportunity we can seize to bring healing into the world.
For now, there’s been enough killing. I’m not naive enough to think that such events will never happen again. In fact, the increasing tension in much of the world and the lessons of history point toward the very real possibility of more violence. I guess that’s human nature.
As individuals and as a society, we must be more circumspect than ever. Religious circles have made the concept somewhat cliche, but we must seek God if we are to reclaim a sense of virtue.
Perhaps, if enough of us pursue God with all our hearts, we’ll be able to bring a significant amount of healing to the world. And then, perhaps, as Abraham Lincoln said, “these dead shall not have died in vain.”