Like most Americans of a certain age, I remember September 11, 2001 well. I had pulled an all-nighter at the office, working on an appellate brief. I had gone home for a quick nap, shower, and clean suit. I was ironing my shirt, watching CNN, when news broke of the first plane striking the Twin Towers. I remember thinking it was a terrible tragedy, but the idea of a terrorist attack was just one possibility. Then I watched as the second plane struck in the background of a live news update. That second strike made it real. There was no way it was an accident. America was under attack.
I remember going to the office, and watching in one of my partners' office as the Towers fell. I remember heading to a noon hour special Mass with several Catholic partners, even though I am a lapsed Lutheran. I remember heading home as they closed my building, the tallest in the Des Moines skyline, because right then the idea of a terrorist attack on an insurance building in the Midwest seemed entirely plausible. I remember watching hours of news coverage as America tried to come to grips with the thousands of little tragedies spinning off from the greater tragedy we were still unable to process.
Every generation has its defining event. For my grandfather's generation, it was Pearl Harbor, when America was pulled into history's greatest war against tyranny. For my father's generation, it was the assassination of JFK, the man who steered America away from the brink of nuclear war in the Cuban Missile Crisis, and was probably the last best hope to avoid the quagmire and historical-political repercussions of the Vietnam War.
For my generation, in 1995 I would have assumed our defining event to have been the Oklahoma City bombing, then the most significant act of terrorism on American soil. I still remember where I was when I heard the news of that attack—in my last year of law school, thinking about finals and the bar exam while supervising intramural softball. But somehow, the Oklahoma City bombing faded from the public memory in a few years, maybe because the terrorists turned out to be home-grown American radicals, maybe because times were good and Americans just wanted to move on. A few months ago, I was in Oklahoma City for a mediation. We walked past the Oklahoma City bombing memorial on our way from the parking garage to the soaring building where we were meeting. Our attorney rather off-handedly pointed out the memorial and mentioned how it was just part of downtown and not something he had visited in years. Just another historical marker for another historical event.
The terrorist attack on 9/11 truly was a defining moment for my generation. It dwarfed the Oklahoma City bombing in its scale, its brazenness, its evil. It was a sucker punch to the American psyche, an attack at the foundations of our culture on our home turf. The world changed for Americans when those planes hit the Twin Towers, the Pentagon, and the Pennsylvania countryside. We solemnly vowed we would never forget.
I remember the bitter political rancor that divided the country less than a year prior to 9/11, when a few hundred ambiguous votes and a split decision of the U.S. Supreme Court decided the hotly contested presidential election between George W. Bush and Al Gore. Yet in the days after 9/11, I remember being inspired by President Bush as he visited the still smoldering ruins of the Twin Towers. I remember my pride at Al Gore solemnly declaring, "George Bush is my President." I remember how Americans—so recently and so bitterly divided—came together, their political discord mended by a renewed sense of common cause.
Since 9/11, there have been three presidential elections, each more vitriolic than the prior. Americans are more polarized politically than ever. Red states vs. Blue states. Republicans vs. Democrats. Politicians willing to lie, dissemble, obfuscate, and slander merely to thwart the other side, without regard for the merits of the issue in dispute. America no longer has a common cause. It's good vs. evil, and evil vs. good. Compromise is a dirty word, an unacceptable surrender to the enemy. Bipartisanship is dead, slain by ideological purity.
I remember after 9/11 how Americans were careful to separate the terrorists from their Muslim faith. How politicians and clergy spoke of treating Muslims with compassion, to recognize that their faith does not condone such senseless violence, to understand that Muslims worldwide condemned the attacks and sympathized with our loss. I remember how the terrorists were our enemies, not Muslims.
Today, barely a decade removed from the atrocities committed by a fringe radical group more similar to the Oklahoma City bombers than to the average Muslim in the Middle East, the idea of a mosque in the same area as the Twin Towers is grist for conservative politicians and talk show hosts to whip up their base into a frenzy. These same radicals turn "Muslim" into a pejorative slander against our President, who makes the electoral calculation that it is better to declare his Christian bona fides than to defend the millions of Muslims whose faith follows a path of peace.
I remember when we sought those responsible for the 9/11 attacks and were viewed as the good guys, the righteous people seeking justice, not vengeance. I remember the broad coalition of our allies, and the support of those countries and peoples who prior to the attacks might have shared the terrorists' view of America as an arrogant, hedonistic behemoth who imposed her will on the world.
America's thirst for justice was subverted and perverted. We used the 9/11 attacks to justify a war against Iraq, a country with no connection to the attacks and posing no threat to American security. We began to torture enemies and suspected enemies, using euphemisms like "extraordinary rendition" and "enhanced interrogation techniques". We opened and continue to operate a concentration camp at Guantanamo Bay, enabling us to hold prisoners—even American citizens—idefinitely and beyond any judicial authority. We have Presidents of both parties asserting the authority to order the summary executions of not just foreign terrorists, but also American citizens thought to be terrorists. Those same Presidents who decry the loss of innocent Americans in the 9/11 attacks order drone strikes on terrorist suspects without regard for the collateral damage to innocent foreign civilians.
I remember when we viewed the 9/11 attacks as a fundamental attack on our American way of life. I remember how we swore we couldn't "let the terrorists win" by changing our core principles, by sacrificing our freedoms to assuage our fears.
Americans sold out their liberty for the illusion of security. Sensible security upgrades gave way to a nationalized system of security theater. Airports are filled with TSA agents irradiating and patting down millions of American citizens who pose no threat greater than transmitting the common cold with an unprotected sneeze. Now TSA agents are inspecting our beverages; it's only a matter of time before we all fondly remember the days when we did not have to strip naked before boarding a plane.
Even worse than the indignities of airport security are the more fundamental erosions of our rights. Today, the Homeland Security conglomerate mines the detritus of our daily lives, looking for suspicious patterns of behavior in the goods we buy, the books we read, the web searches we conduct, the people we meet. If we trip the wrong alarm, or piss off the wrong government official, we may find the full force of the government digging into our lives via secretive "national security letters" that circumvent our Constitutional due process rights. But it's all OK because the Government is simply trying to "prevent the next 9/11".
The 9/11 attacks unquestionably struck a major blow to the American way of life. But we do a disservice to those who died in the 9/11 attacks if we superficially remember their sacrifice while fundamentally altering our time-honored American values. Saying "we will never forget" is not about a monument or a memorial service. The best way to honor those who fell on 9/11 is to remember and celebrate the fundamental values of America—liberty, equality, and tolerance.
Never forget the essence of America.