Like many Americans I commemorate with my countrymen the tenth anniversary of the terrorist attacks of September Eleventh in the Year of Our Lord Two-thousand and One.
The reader will notice that I do not refer to that Day as almost everyone else does. Most refer to it audibly as “Nine-eleven” and write it as 9/11 or 9-11. Not I. The horrors, and later the heroism that emerged on that Day deserve in my mind a special sort of commemoration. I will almost never enumerate that Day. That Day to me will always be written and spoken “September Eleventh.” The Day too many of my fellow Americans lost their lives because they professionally and loyally showed up to go to work, just like I had that Day. My fellow Americans were brutally slain simply because they were in buildings and airplanes selected by some monstrous zealots, zealots creating and adhering to a twisted philosophy based loosely on one of the worlds’ major religions conjured from a spiritual void emanating from an encampment on the other side of the Northern Hemisphere. It was an attack even more ignoble than the earlier sneak attack by the Imperial Japanese Navy at Pearl Harbor two generations prior. At least the Japanese had had the decency to hit a military target. Even during the period of the Cold War, under threat of the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction, in which hundreds of thousands of American and Soviet citizens were at thirty-minute’s risk of mass annihilation; citizens of both countries knew that such an outcome, while horrifically possible, was only a very remote possibility, and that that possibility was remote because both the United States and the Soviet Union were largely rational. Destruction of one people almost certainly would have ensured the destruction of the other. Eventually rationality prevailed in the Cold War and it never turned isotope-hot. But these new attackers were bent on destruction of symbols and the lives therein in order to cow an entire nation into submission. They were no students of mankind’s history. Otherwise they might have known their efforts would be in vain. Pinprick attacks against symbolic targets, regardless of the symbol demolished, do not affect the azimuth of the trajectory of national destiny. Indeed, even large-scale attacks against symbols can fail, as the German Sixth Army in discovered in the ruins of Stalingrad.
Nevertheless, the destruction wreaked by the attacks was awful. While Americans’ souls were wracked with grief, the best of us, which is to say most of us, did not grovel in any sort of penance the masters of our attackers eventually demanded. Rather, we occupied ourselves with the country’s most immediate need, which was to focus right then on our grief. We eulogized and then buried our dead as we began to erase the molecules of destruction in preparation for the rebuilding we knew we would do in a more distant future we could not see through the current veil of tears.
It is some comfort to me that there will be others around the world that will mark the tenth anniversary of the Atrocity with us. This is because on that fateful Day, people from across the world mourned our loss along with us. In Britain, the Royal Guard played The Star-Spangled Banner at the Changing of the Guard that evening. Vigils popped up all over Europe and Asia. One vigil even took place in Tehran, Iran, of all places! But not every gathering was a show of solidarity or an offer of prayers of mourning, and not every message from national leaders offered condolences. Gatherings of Levantine Arabs were celebratory. And during even the initial response to the Atrocity, Saddam Hussein’s press releases were vindictive, to put it nicely, and simply got worse as the evil Day wore on. One of the things I will remember from September Eleventh will be the peoples and the nations who stood with us. I will also remember those that stood athwart us, those yet alive to stand. Cold comfort it is, but it is comfort nonetheless that the architect of that Day is in our hands, and the master of that Day is gone from the world my children will inherit.
While much in the world has changed, much today remains in doubt. Doubts regarding the future are natural. But we cannot, we must not conflate doubts regarding the future into any sort of fear of the future. Make no mistake, there will come dark days at times in the future. The arc of history makes that plain. Some of the future days of shadow may be a result of events as perniciously evil as the events of September Eleventh. They may even be worse. For now though many of us now will continue the long struggle that has been forced upon us. But we must do more than fight the fight of our generation. We must also teach our children to love God and His gift of a spirit of individual liberty. If we guide our children to enshrine the West’s most basic concepts of human rights and to cherish the freedom each individual possesses in his own sovereignty as a unique Child of the Almighty, then they will indeed stand together for one another and for future generations. For it is almost as certain as the sunrise that in each future any of my generation can imagine, an incarnation of anti-liberty, of political or religious despotism will arise seeking to impose its view of order on the people of the world, whether in a corner of the planet or upon the whole of the globe. The price of freedom is eternal vigilance. We must always remember that basic lesson.
The knowledge that evil will arise again and perform dastardly acts then is as certain as night falling after each day. In another age one might have selected as a more suitable analogy that we know beyond a doubt there will be storms, we simply cannot know exactly when the storm would appear above or on the horizon, nor could we know how severe the storm might become and whether it would devastate with deluge, ignite a wildfire with lightning, or flatten with wind. Knowing the storm will come leads us to sensibly prepare. Knowing storms bring different types of risks dictate the types of preparations we must make.
I have for several years believed that my country in the Year of our Lord 2001 but prior to September Eleventh was optimistically looking past the relatively brief economic turmoil wrought by the “Irrational exuberance” bubble that accompanied the fabulous growth of Internet-based information and commerce. America was digesting the changes wrought by the new reality of life in an electronically interconnected world. Change wrought by economic uncertainty or dislocation is uncomfortable to be sure. But in this modern age of plentiful food and safe-to-drink-from-the-tap water and readily accessible medical professionals, the people of the West happily forget on a day-to-day basis the struggle for existence in pre-modernity with which previous generations were forced to contend. We have as a society essentially departed from the portion of history wherein mankind’s survival in his far flung homesteads and communities was not certain. Our ancestors depended for survival on themselves, of course, but also on their ability to raise enough crops for their daily bread and for a store as a hedge against the inevitable winters or worse. Nature and other men had a way of working against plans, so in addition to winter there were famines, pestilences, floods, fires, winds, or even simple uncooperative livestock available to compound grain problems; not to mention man-made scarcity caused by levies, taxes, plunder, banditry, and theft. And those were just a few potential problems with food supply that we no longer typically suffer! Add to the potential woes of food creation and delivery many similar problems associated with delivery of other basic needs such as water, shelter, warmth, sanitation, and medicine. I stand in humble awe on the shoulders of those of my ancestors who persevered through the ages and ultimately left us with a legacy that provided our generations’ life of easy opportunity. In 2001 as today we should reflect on the marvel that modern civilization has become as it grew in the shade of a history made possible from many branches: One such branch would be political advances from the Magna Carta to the Treaty of Westphalia to the Declaration of Independence to the US constitution (especially including the amendments signed by the blood of our Civil War). Another branch would be inventions that enabled mass distribution of knowledge from the printing press to the Internet. Yet another branch would be farming and agricultural advances from the plow to the tractor to veterinary medicine. Other branches are modern sanitation, medicine, architecture, applied sciences, research sciences, mass education; the list goes on and on. We as a society have come so far that it has become impossible to know much beyond the fact that life was once harder. We cannot really conceive ourselves the steeling of mind and character that had to have occurred to have lived in those days. Of old, I believe people planned for catastrophe as best they could, and knowing one would occur they were mentally perhaps more prepared to deal with an eventuality they knew was certain. Perhaps also the recovery from the disasters that befell them took so much time and effort that there was little time to do anything but put their backs to the solution to their problems and push forward with all their might without pause until the challenge was met and conquered. Our twenty-first century personages now have the luxury to have time to reflect on catastrophes that have just recently befallen us.
And so it was, in my opinion, with September Eleventh. Reflecting would come in due course. In the midst of economic adversity America and the West and our Allies were dealt a crushing, jarring blow to our face. There would be no more ignoring, no more appeasing, no more understanding root causes. There would be grieving, and then there would be action from our righteous anger and then there would be justice, we vowed to ourselves. Millions of us arrived for our daily duty that morning. Nearly three-thousand fewer returned home at the end of that Day. There was no sense to the mayhem; the explanations offered to try to provide context ensured the mayhem remained nonsensical. Explanations did not provide justice, only action in righteous fury provided justice. Ten years of fighting, while not yet complete, have brought the 2001-version of the Order of the Demon Djinn known as al Qaeda to a strategic halt. The cost paid to administer justice has been very high; by this time almost everyone in the military, including me, knows more than a few brethren who have given their Last Full Measure. The military has not been the only conduit to the front line of this new type of warfare, but it has borne the brunt of the fighting; as it should be, as it always ought to have been but was not on that new Day of Infamy.
While I was off with the military, forward to fight and win its nations new war, I collected the sense over the following years that Americans had taken as a lesson that while modern life was relatively easy as we discussed in the paragraphs above, life was fragile and life could be spectacularly and horrifically ended in mere hours at the whim of forces we could not master quickly nor build resilience to resist in enough dimensions to thwart all life-stealing acts of mass murder. I believe that most Americans understood that the dream of the generations that came before was for us to work to live in a peace and plenty, a future that our ancestors could not fathom but had faith that although they might not understand the technology to come that it would better everyone’s lives. As Americans were suddenly and violently confronted with despair-inducing horror, we naturally began to cherish the lives we’d inherited. This was a very good thing.
Life, however, is in part constructed out of metaphysical things like our prior education, our hopes and dreams, our faith; also out of our available resources, and out of the items we place around ourselves to enable us to live and thrive and appreciate. Life is contained in a vessel we construct to contain the tools we use to build more life, and to contain reminders of the things we love to do and the people that surround us and enrich our lives. As September Eleventh became yesterday, and then last week, and then last month, and then last year, and then the following year, it never ceased being a part of our lives. This is natural and reasonable. We cannot forget that Day, we should not forget that Day. As that Day ebbed into history, it remained in our lives to remind us that life is fragile and precious, lessons we should always keep somewhere near the forefront of our minds to make certain we remember always that life, ours and others, will continue and we should do our best to make it better as we make it through. And that thought as a kernel has, I believe, led us, barely consciously, to the turbulences we are now experiencing as a society.
Today, the tenth anniversary of September Eleventh is a Sunday. It is a day to appreciate the clear blue skies overhead, reminiscent of that Day ten years ago. It is a day to offer a prayer of thanks for the contrails from the jet aircraft I have seen all day today, and a prayer of thanks for safe arrivals at my destinations as I fly today. These are reminders that all is getting back to normal, to a normal status that was stripped away from us ten years ago. As the decade since has worn on, things slowly, inexorably changed. The changes were not always easy to see as they were occurring, and the facts and reasons behind the changes did not always result directly from the events of September Eleventh. I believe though that September Eleventh is a consideration behind the rise of a mode of thought that ultimately led to the creation of the catalysts for the problems that led us as a society to our current economic doldrums. It is my hope that by my explanation I can help people in the future to understand that no matter how shocking or tragic an event, we owe it to the generations to come to expend enough effort to recover from the disaster but that our lives, which are the essential building blocks of our society and our civilization, will continue. And because it will continue, we owe it to ourselves and everyone to continue living in prudence for the tomorrows that most assuredly will come. With new days will come new challenges, and new storms, and new consequences of those new storms.
I believe a subtle yet pernicious effect of September Eleventh was to exacerbate a tendency of optimistic Americans, who as a matter of course believe a chance at a better life is always only a short time away from today. The tendency for so many of us is to believe that if a way is available to improve the container vessels that surround our lives that we owe it to our own characters to make our visions of the future into reality as fast as we possibly can. I do not believe sheer greed is a sufficient explanation for our tendencies to surround ourselves with appurtenances of modern life in quantities that make us appear materialistic. In our collective quests to make life normal and then better in the months and years beyond September Eleventh we forgot that we needed to stop spending and spending and spending in order to make things better right now. Why would we stop spending, even extending ourselves unrealistic amounts of credit? We would not stop spending, buying because we were busy. We were making things better right now. We had to make things better right now, because as September Eleventh had just shown us, tomorrow it might be too late, we might suddenly, randomly be called out of this world before we’d had a chance to make it better. So we advanced our fiscal throttles slightly, and we opened up the cash flow we accessed through our own work, and we opened up the cash flow we accessed through institutions who lived so close to the nightmare zone I can only imagine they rationalized that they were helping everyone else make things better right now while earning their own keep and their daily bread. September Eleventh did not break us as a people, as a nation. The dark horror of September Eleventh formed the backdrop for the light of glorious heroism of the New York Firefighters, Police Officers, Port Authority, civilians; denizens of the Pentagon; and the passengers and crew of United Flight 93. September Eleventh also amplified in Americans not just the latent heroism in their character, but it also amplified one of our other core characteristics: The drive to make things better. While this element worked for a time in the countries into which we pursued our justice, in other ways and in later days this tendency at home somewhat eroded our economic well-being.
I am by no means offering this idea as a reason to do nothing about our current economic situation in America. I hope somewhat obliquely that by remembering this element of our character, our drive to make things better will be tempered in the future with patience and prudence. In the future we or our children, accustomed to living life in benevolent luxury or ease, will find ourselves face-to-face with another catastrophe akin to or worse than September Eleventh, Two-thousand and One. War and privation of course is not the only series of disasters that can befall a folk all of a sudden. The world we inhabit is quite capable of threatening large swaths of our existence; and would that that were all, for the heavens themselves host objects and forces that might also someday affect our lives and our comfort to our detriment. It is my hope that by calling attention to this otherwise noble aspect of our American national character: The drive to make things better can lead to an attempt to make things better faster than we ought. It needs to be incumbent on individuals to spend of our time and effort and money only what is available and necessary. Save in a storehouse of your choice a tithe that will carry you through the inevitable stormy periods and beyond. Put to work that which you do not use; modern financial markets have made this easy. Learn what to earn, learn what you earn, then put that knowledge to good use. But also learn what to avoid. After a catastrophe, preserve your own life, then preserve the vessel that carries your life; and if you suffer loss, make it better, but no faster than you have learned that you can make it with the means you have available to you and you alone. By making it better at your best, most sustainable fiscal speed, you will make things better and you will make them enduringly better. As we all make things enduringly better, we will make things enduringly better for everyone. It will take time. Be patient. Rome wasn’t built in a day, as they say. And look how far we are today from Rome of two-thousand years ago!
I believe this thread, this need to make it better right now, has been an undercurrent of American thought for most of the decade. Like the shade of a nightmare you remember all day, haunting you and your steps from home to work to school to the store and back home, this subtle undercurrent of thought has left us troubled and negatively influenced our spirit as we carry on through our days. I believe the best thing we can do as a nation is simple in concept and as difficult to do as it is to get over the departure of a loved one. We need to wake up from September Eleventh. We must wake up, we must acknowledge the nightmare. We’ve faced our fears and defeated them. All that remains is to wake up and retrain ourselves to do the things we know we need to do to make it better. We need to go forward together with courage, with faith in the future, with a healthy dose of prudence, and with the knowledge that tomorrow will be better because we know each of us individually will make it better after our own fashion in ways that each of us can imagine but the rest of us will not know until they see the result.
“Well, here we are, just the four of us who started out together,” said Merry. “We have left all the rest behind, one after another. It seems almost like a dream that has slowly faded.
“Not to me,” said Frodo. “To me it feels more like falling asleep again.”
Frodo was the ‘Everyman’ character in The Lord of the Rings. I have to encourage every American, every Westerner, and everyone who loves freedom; stay with us! Do not go back to sleep. Stay awake and make it better!