The last time I saw the Twin Towers, they stood with amazing grace. Shimmering with the flaming colors of sunrise, the often gaudy-seeming weights at the lower end of the city’s skyline exuded a double-barreled beauty against a clear, brightening sky. Having grown up a few blocks to the east, and still living within shouting distance of the towers at the time, I’d never much liked their boxy contours. Yet on this morning of September 11, as I headed to Grand Central to take a train to a new job, I stopped at 5:40 am to admire their majesty.
That was twenty years ago, a seeming lifetime gone by, a period of turmoil and change in America in which we have gone from a people united by a common cause to a nation of invidious and sometimes deadly divisions. We’ve come a long way from determined promises such as “We remember. We resolve.” We’ve passed through a pandemic that still haunts the empty offices, streets, and public spaces of the city, as well as a debacle in Afghanistan that may cause us to look back on our response to 9/11 with a jaundiced eye, wondering if our anti-terrorism efforts have been worth it. What can we say now, when even our righteous anger and mission to kill those who attacked us are enmeshed in the blunders, senseless deaths, and confusion of the Afghanistan withdrawal?
We came. We saw. We squandered?
On past major anniversaries, I wrote to express anger, regret, and resolve. This year, I do so more out of duty than personal desire. Something needs to be written more than I need to write. I fear that even I—so much affected by that day when hijacked planes demolished the familiar skyscrapers of my neighborhood, killing nearly 3,000 people just a few blocks from the apartment where my wife and infant lay awake—even I may forget some vital detail or let the sense of righteous horror fade. It’s been twenty years, our nation has experienced other crises—and embraced endless distractions—but voices, my voice, still must be raised in remembrance. We cannot forget what happened that day.
I wonder if December 7 still clung to the ribs of Americans in 1961, twenty years after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor? My dad fought as a Navy man in that war, and I remember him each year reciting “A day that will live in infamy” long before I knew what “infamy” meant. The older Sisters of Charity in our school would tell us where they were on December 7, and even the Catholic 2020-21 calendar on my wall marks that date as “Pearl Harbor Day.” September 11 has never had that kind of deep, visceral imprint on the American mind. Though it should.
Perhaps this is because we do not know how to fight wars anymore, and have lost sight of the righteous victory. We can still make glorious movies of storming Omaha Beach and saving Private Ryan because Hitler was, well, Hitler. But it’s tough to beat our enemies today when so many of our leaders think those enemies may have a righteous cause against us. For every bomb or drone strike there is an apologist for the target, and we wind up losing our aim in more ways than one. Just as you can’t fight an enemy you cannot see, so you cannot defeat one by always attempting to see the world through his eyes. We must believe in our cause or the enemy’s claims will get under our skin and ultimately defeat us.
If all the second-guessing and reflection in battle caused us to be more humane, it might be worth it. But we are soft on our enemies not out of compassion or fellowship but rather because we are morally uncertain. This ambivalence was on full display when many of the same people who called for unlimited resettlement of Afghan refugees in our country also condemned the Supreme Court for letting stand a Texas heartbeat abortion bill. Where are the open arms for the babies who would be saved, and the tears for those dismembered in their mothers’ wombs? Abortion law has distorted America’s soul for half a century, and the divisions of opinion, which admit of little compromise, now permeate our politics at every level. Every issue that touches on Roe v. Wade, even in a small way, has Americans at each other’s throats.
What message do we need to hear this week on September 11? What rite of remembrance will etch the day and its events perpetually in mind and heart? Will we move forward boldly and declare it a “day of infamy,” or retreat to an “inoffensive” and generalized grief? What we need this year especially is more than memories. We need a motive, something to move us to prepare for a unified future. If it is difficult to imagine our nation rallying around a common cause again, we must admit that there are hard labors of renewal ahead. We have as a people risen from seemingly intractable divisions before. It is our duty to do so again.