“Our world changed yesterday,” I wrote on September 12, 2001. “Like you, we’ll be a long time plumbing the depths of this change.”
Thirteen years later, the blue clarity of September 11, 2001 — before 8:46am — seems a farewell look at innocence. Adam and Eve might have seen just such radiance in the Garden of Eden as its gate shut them out.
It’s a nice image, and there’s some truth in it. Certainly the new millennium seemed to promise a clean start. Certainly this absolute penetration of our defenses was not within our expectations. Certainly we have never felt the same since. Nowadays optimism is in scarce supply.
Some truth, only. As a nation and as individuals, we had lost our innocence many times before 9/11 — in wars and faulty peace, in slavery and Indian oppression, at Pearl Harbor and Gettysburg, in depressions and assassinations.
But still some truth. Before, we Americans started things — or we finished the work others were unable to complete. We took this land and settled it. We put our shoulders to the task. We invented and aspired. We lent our might to ending two world wars. We flew around the world and to the moon.
Since 9/11, we have become a nation of first responders. Our dearest heroes are the firefighters and police who rose to the unprecedented occasions of that terrible day — and the soldiers who followed in their footsteps.
Since that day, we have been mopping up mounting woes.
In the Middle East, where outrage begets outrage, we wage our own wars and try to throw our weight on the side of justice — wherever that may be — in the wars of others. We’ve killed Osama bin Laden, but the sorcerer’s apprentices are rising up, lately the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. Two American journalists beheaded is not the World Trade Towers. But it is enough.
In the East, the ice left over from the Cold War is breaking. Russia’s hungry bear is reawakening. China is threatening us not with communism but with clever frauds and computer hacks.
Here at home, nearly every aspect of life seems in turmoil: police armed for Homeland Security … the old economy trashed before a new one is created … cities bankrupt … infrastructure crumbling … schools leaving children behind … immigrants crashing the borders … health care in divisive crisis … waste — from nuclear to plastic — engulfing us … climate change threatening to drop the bomb.
And now our America seems the only world force big enough to take on Ebola in Africa.
So yes, some truth. For all we’d seen and done before 9/11, we still had innocence to lose and experience to gain.
I read Hillary Clinton this past Sunday, writing in the Washington Post about the new book by her predecessor as secretary of state, World Order by Henry Kissinger.
“There really is no viable alternative,” she wrote, speaking of “the indispensability of continued American leadership in service of a just and liberal order.
“No other nation can bring together the necessary coalitions and provide the necessary capabilities to meet today’s complex global threats.”
How much that role costs may be a lesson of each generation. Certainly it’s one lesson we’ve learned since September 11, 2001.
Sandra Olivetti Martin
Editor and publisher; firstname.lastname@example.org