Saturday, September 13, 2008

Remembering 9/11 -- and how to never forget

(Originally published 9/13/08)

What were you doing on Sept. 11?

2008, not 2001.

How did you remember the worst terrorist attack on American soil?

Millions of Americans watched the observances from Ground Zero, the Pentagon and Shanksville, Pa. Others participated in services involving first responders in cities and towns, like ours, all across the country.

As Lincoln said at Gettysburg, this is altogether fitting and proper.

I watched news coverage from 9/11. I knew it would be unsettling, watching the anchors sort through the confusion. Watching in sheer disbelief as another plane careened across the sky and buried itself into the second tower. Watching two massive structures crumble to the ground. Watching people slowly realize what was happening.

Watching the world change.

I didn’t realize the physiological reaction I would have to reliving all this. Seven years on, my pulse was racing, my breathing more rapid. I was tense.

Amid the annual vows to “never forget,” I wondered: Do we truly remember –- not where we were, but how we felt?

I was seven months pregnant with our first child and teaching a 10th grade English class. I had just picked up a test when my phone rang. We turned on the television. As that second plane hit the WTC, I touched my belly and wondered what sort of world my child would inherit. My students asked what was happening; I had no answers. President Bush was 10 miles away, and he was a likely next target.

I turned and looked at my students. Twenty minutes before, their greatest concern had been passing a vocabulary test. These teenagers -– who, like all teens, constantly strove to be older -– suddenly looked like lost little children.

It is a psychological necessity to mentally distance one’s self from trauma. There is nothing shameful or unpatriotic about it. Survival requires it. It is one of the ways we cope with tragedy in our lives.

But moving on shouldn’t mean checking out.

Survival also requires adaptation. That is doubly true when the environment is a new one. Animals who cannot adapt their self-defense strategies to meet the needs of their environment can become prey for those that can.

And so it is with terrorism.

So how do we adapt?

As long as the enemy exists, we must never underestimate his capability. We cannot have, as 9/11 commission co-chairman Lee Hamilton so evocatively said, another "failure of imagination."

And we must consciously decide to remember the raw shock, the weight of our helplessness and then the steely resolve this nation shared in the days that followed.

Far from politicizing 9/11, it helps us to remain united as a nation -– whatever our philosophical differences -– and committed to the singular goal of protecting our country and our people from terrorism. As President Kennedy said: "Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty."

May God comfort the families of those lost, and may He protect those of us who remain -– and remember.

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