A couple of years back, I got a message on Facebook from a friend from high school that I literally had not heard from since we graduated more than two decades ago. Like a lot of people from those way back years, we connected via social media. In his message he asked me a favor. His teenage daughter, who was now in high school at the same school we had once attended, was working on a project related to the events of September 11. She was tasked by her teacher to reach out to someone to recall the events of that day and have them share their experiences. In sharing her assignment with her dad, he mentioned to her that he knew a guy from “way back when,” who worked in homeland security and was probably in DC “that day.” He told her he would reach out to see if “this guy” could help her out.
It was great to hear from an old friend, but when that old friend makes you a bit of a history assignment, it makes you realize how much time has passed since the simpler days of old. I told him I would be happy to help. Each of my three kids has asked me at various times to recall “that day” and what it was like to go through it. It was something I felt compelled to share for reasons I don’t fully understand.
It’s hard to believe it’s been 13 years. The feelings and emotions are still raw. There’s a personal lid that each of us has internally that can be easily lifted to recall the sights, sounds and tastes of that day. Last night, when I got home, I found my youngest child sitting downstairs on the couch watching the National Geographic interview with President George W. Bush that he did to coincide with the 10th anniversary of the attacks. While he certainly knows about September 11, this particular child was not alive when the attacks occurred, whereas his older sister and brother were. On that day 13 years ago, the two of them were happily going about their lives playing with toys, watching some little kid cartoons and crawling around the downstairs furniture. Their world was simple, playful and most of all innocent.
Unbeknownst to them that world would no longer exist by the end of that day. It changed this country in an unmistakable fashion, and every day since then it has been an adaptation of some sort or another in terms of security, attitudes, prejudices, awareness and so forth. While I love each of my kids deeply and equally, I have to say I look at my oldest two children a bit differently than my youngest child. Now age 11, every day of his life on this planet this nation has been at war in some portion of the world.
Now I’m not naive enough to think that the pre-9/11 world that his older siblings had was free from conflict, but as I’ve watched my three kids grow, I’ve personally wrestled with the painful adaptation this country remains in the grips of since “that day.”
We are in the midst of a “Long War” in this country against forces that bastardize one of the world’s great religions and champion a bloodthirsty doctrine of slaughtering innocents. Americans, never known for their patience, want things resolved quickly so we can move on to the next issue. While our forebears certainly didn’t know when the American Revolution, the Civil War or even both World Wars would end, they had in mind what the world and this nation might look forward to when those conflicts wrapped up. I can’t say we know or even have that vision nowadays.
This is a very uncomfortable muddle we find ourselves in. Despite the fervent proclamation made by President Bush in the days after the 9/11 attacks (“We will not waver; we will not tire; we will not falter and we will not fail. Peace and Freedom will prevail”), we are tired and in more than many areas exhausted in terms of spent resources and energies to open another conflict. But there is no choice in this fight. It is one where we have to be engaged. The costs of ignorance and turning our back on the unfolding aberration that is ISIL are too great.
In watching President Obama speak to the nation last night, I thought he was doing everything he could to sound strong but was holding back in some measure because this is not the role he wanted to play as president. This was the president that wanted to end wars, not start another.
Unfortunately, presidents don’t get to choose the overarching circumstances of their terms. For all of their campaign rhetoric and aspirations for Mount Rushmore-like greatness, conditions often require them to take on leadership roles that they may not want to take or be remotely comfortable in leading during them.
I think the American public is pretty much in a similar circumstance. We desperately don’t want to begin another conflict. We know all too well the costs to the military personnel, their families, our politics, our way of life, our country etc. But we also know the steep price of inaction, turning our back and allowing a cancer to fester unencumbered. It metastasizes to even greater deadly proportions and spreads to cause even greater harm. We also know it takes very few people to unleash horror. The Fort Hood shooting, the Boston Marathon attack, and other attempted domestic attacks by extremists remind us of the need for vigilance and preparedness.
In watching the President’s speech last night with my wife and three kids, I could not help but think of how important it is to tell our stories of “that day.” The President delivered a speech he clearly did not want to deliver but events far beyond anyone’s control have forced him to do so. The stories of that day help us to better understand why it is we have to act in ways we may not want to, so we don’t have to relive that day again in an even more public and brutal way again in the near future. As such I’ve encouraged as many of my family, friends, and colleagues, regardless of who they are or wherever they were that day to write those stories down.
Every generation witnesses horrors of some type but in recording those experiences and sharing them with others we hope to impart the painful lessons learned to lead us to ways to stop them from ever occurring again. That’s part of our responsibilities to one another. For my part, here is my story.