Children learn history best from the stories we tell about the lives we’ve lived and the things we’ve seen. What will our children remember about Sept. 11, 2001, and all the days that followed?
The attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people in New York City, the Pentagon and a field in Pennsylvania fractured our belief in the safety of our homeland.
We invaded Iraq and Afghanistan, and nearly 7,000 U.S. servicemen and women and hundreds of thousands of civilians in those countries lost their lives. And we’re still in both places with no idea how to get out.
We wiped out al-Qaida, but the Islamic State rose in its place.
Muslim demonization spiked. Civil liberties at times were undermined. Billions of dollars have been spent on homeland security. Airplane travel changed forever.
Our nation’s response to 9/11 resonates in the presidential campaign as a test of the candidates’ judgment: Who wanted to go into Iraq and who didn’t? Polling reveals that national security now is a greater concern for voters in this presidential election than in decades.
9/11 haunts us, in the communities that lost so many people, at the many memorials giving silent witness to the tragedy, and in the everyday lives of all the first responders struggling with illnesses caused by their work on the pile.
Rebuilding there continues to fill the gap in the sky above, new towers replacing the twin ones now gone.
Most profoundly, 9/11 made us realize that we were not invulnerable. That still shocks many of us; it forced us to learn to live with fear.
We’re still learning.
Mostly, we go about our daily business with fear tucked away in the backs of our minds. We don’t shy from public places. We eat in sidewalk cafes, we go to concerts, we dance in clubs, we attend sports events, we ride subways and trains, we fly. We display an admirable resilience that allows us to live our lives.
But then last month, at Kennedy International Airport, a rumor spread about shots fired, and people panicked. Travelers ran wildly through the airport on that hot August night, two terminals were evacuated in the chaos and a nearby highway was shut down. The gunfire, it turned out, never happened.
It was a sober lesson on the difficulty of managing fear.
The foreign-inspired and domestic terrorist acts that have followed 9/11 have led to schoolchildren doing active-shooter drills and companies marketing bulletproof office furniture and student desks. It’s lamentable. But is that much different from the duck-and-cover drills some of us remember from the Cold War and the fear of missiles from Cuba?
Fear can be rational or irrational. The same is true of our responses. Our politicians have not helped in this regard. They have no answers for the quagmires that followed 9/11, so they resort to fear.
They tell us terrorism is omnipresent, when it’s not. They portray it as a threat to our very existence, when it’s not. They contend that our military is small and weak, when the United States remains the strongest superpower in the world.
Most insidious of all, they use the fear that they stoke to divide us, to create suspicion about others who they say are not like us.
The Twin Towers stood within sight of the Statue of Liberty, but now we’re told we should not take in those huddled masses from certain religions or countries. If we listen and bar those who themselves are fleeing fear and terror, we will have created an even bigger problem, one that eats away at the core of what it means to be American.
We’ve learned a lot in the aftermath of 9/11. We learned of our remarkable capacity for bravery and selflessness. We learned of the darkness lurking in some hearts. We learned the world is more precarious than we thought before that day, and that despite that, we can continue to live full and satisfying lives.
But are we any safer than we thought we were when we woke up on that sunny September morning?
In some ways, yes. We’ve certainly steeled ourselves against that kind of attack ever happening again. In New York City, in particular, the police have focused on intelligence gathering to fight terrorism. Security forces around the country have stopped numerous threats.
But we’ve also learned that we can’t stop them all. There are too many people with too many grievances and too-easy access to too-powerful weapons. That makes us vulnerable to the kind of random attacks that took place in Boston and San Bernardino and Orlando. And we probably always will be vulnerable to some degree, unless we want to surrender more than our shoes and our metadata.
Many of us will pause this morning for a memorial ceremony, a ritual that has comfort in its familiarity. The moments of silence. The reading of the names of victims. The tolling of church bells. We’ll remember exactly what we were doing 15 years ago and what it felt like as we learned what had happened.
But when we turn to our children to explain, we also should tell them how we rose from that devastation, and how we’ve gone forward.
We fear, yes. But we gather. We welcome. And we fly.