I thought I was over September 11, but this article in Friday’s Washington Post brought it all back.
In it, an Air Force pilot recalls how she and her flight commander scrambled to intercept United Airlines Flight 93, which had been hijacked by al-Qaeda fanatics intent on crashing it into the Capitol Building. Neither of the Air Force jets was armed. The fliers intended to knock down the airliner by turning their own planes into guided missiles aimed at Flight 93: A suicide mission. To save our country.
The passengers on Flight 93 made the sacrifice instead, bringing the airliner down in a Pennsylvania field rather than let the hijackers have their way. And as I read about it, I found myself all teary again, the way I was on September 11 when I heard the story of how the Republican activist Barbara Olson, wife of the U.S. Solicitor General, had been among those killed when American Airlines Flight 77 crashed into the Pentagon. Her husband reported that she’d called him while the plane was in the air, and asked what she should do, and then the phone went dead.
Barbara Olson had been one of my least favorite people. She was a smart, pugnacious and (I felt) mean-spirited advocate for conservative politics—one of those people you loved to hate, if you were on the other side politically. She’d been all over the television during the 2000 election cycle, and was a frequent guest on Bill Maher’s TV show, “Politically Incorrect,” snarking about Al Gore and liberalism. But all of a sudden she was dead, along with the nearly three thousand others who departed this world in the wreckage of the Twin Towers, at the Pentagon, and in the Pennsylvania field.
At that moment, what had come before didn’t matter, and I could see my bitterness and irritation at her for what it was—something essentially false, and trivial, and unworthy. We were all Americans, and we were all standing together against a great evil. At a service in a small Episcopal church the next night, I found myself crying and praying for Barbara Olson, repenting of my sins, ready to do my part—whatever that was—in the fight that was to come.
For the next few months, that amazing feeling of solidarity of purpose with other shocked Americans remained strongly with me:
—As I played volleyball with friends a day later, not far from Dulles Airport, under a deep blue sky surreally empty of air traffic, trying to act normally.
—As I waited stuck in traffic on the Washington Beltway, where the drivers were suddenly calm and courteous, and no one cut anyone else off.
—When I watched the congressmen from both political parties singing together on the Capitol steps.
—When I watched President Bush take a megaphone and climb on the smoking ruins of Lower Manhattan to defy Al Qaeda.
That feeling was still with me months later when I visited New York for a convention, and made the pilgrimage down to Ground Zero, where the wreckage had been mostly cleared away but still smelled of smoke and ruin. And I felt it too the following spring, on a hiking trip in England, when the sympathy and kindness of the English people I met helped me see that we were not alone, that much of the world shared our shock and sympathized with our grief.
That was ten years ago.
Today, in some ways, it is as if it never happened. It is as if our nation, which woke up for a few months there in 2001 and 2002 with a shared sense of purpose and connection, has slipped back into the same old dream we were dreaming before the planes hit. The political battles are more vicious than ever, hypocrisy and cynicism exacerbated by a severe economic downturn in which those who have been backed up to the edge of a cliff kick at those who are already falling off of it.
It turns out that there were few clear-cut enemies to mobilize against. Instead, we mobilized against ourselves.
The so-called War on Terror mostly set us against one another. Those who argued against new restrictions on civil liberties or against ill-conceived military action in Iraq the following year were branded “unpatriotic” and vilified. Who were the true patriots? Who were the true Americans? Our readiness to share in sacrifice for our country was manipulated and twisted and used for political gain. Those of us who had opened ourselves up to it felt like we’d been played for suckers, victims, like the heroic Pat Tillman in Afghanistan, of friendly fire.
As this tenth anniversary of the September 11 attack nears, the retrospectives on TV and radio refer knowingly to that day as a day when “everything changed.” Several of them have asked viewers and listeners, “how did it change you?”
I don’t feel that the attacks changed me. If anything, they brought out something in me that was already there: my best self, willing to believe, sacrifice, and act selflessly. They brought out the most hopeful, patriotic, naively optimistic parts of me that I’d previously walled off from a world where suckers get taken advantage of, and no good deed goes unpunished.
But what came after September 11, with its internecine culture wars—red America against blue America, Tea Party against New Deal, ideology against pragmatism—was far worse than al-Qaeda’s attacks. What came after September 11 changed me.
Today I feel beaten down emotionally, and pessimistic about the direction in which the country is moving. I see fear, and greed, and revenge, and mistrust ruling our lives. I see people shutting down and lashing out. Even though I no longer commute on the Washington Beltway, road rage is worse than ever. The political divisions seem even more intractable. A President whose campaign asked us to hope and work together is increasingly trammeled into a neat political box.The class anxieties feel even more pronounced.
Reading about the pilots brought it all back. Everything, including the tears. For a moment—just for a moment—I again recognized the part of me that truly believes in America and the principles that it was founded on. It is still there, if buried deeply by all the rubble of the decade since September 11, 2001.
I read in the Post story that the pilots eventually returned to base on that day. They were not required to make a dramatic sacrifice for their country. Later, they would go on to fly and fight in Iraq, armed this time with all the high-tech weaponry that could be packed onto their planes. It was a fight that was less clear, and a cause that was harder to define, but they were ready to do their duty.
I feel the same way. If only I knew what my duty was.