Late in the afternoon on September 11, 2001, standing outside my parent’s big white rural home, I looked up and saw a plane.
I was living in Nebraska then, so seeing planes was uncommon anyway, but on that day, of course, it made my throat twist like a screw. For the first time since those persnickety Wright brothers fashioned a flying machine out near Kitty Hawk, there was only one airborne vessel in the whole of the country. I followed the distant, lone specter with my eyes, its slender white trail of exhaust splitting the blue sky in two, aloft on a silent dread, all Americans would come to know well. We would call it terror.
I later learned it was Air Force One, fresh from camping out at an airbase near Omaha. George W. Bush was up there, trying to figure out what in the sam hill was going on. He had a better grasp on it than me but, in retrospect, not much. Nobody did. Inside my home, the television scrambled for an explanation, but no explanation held up to the plastery dust that coated Manhattan in heaps, broken up only here and there with streaks of blood.
I write this on a train to Paris, having just dropped off a rental car near the train station. Today is September 11. When I rented the car, the very nice Avis employee went over the details with my wife and me.
“You’ll drop the car off on September 11,” he said, and then paused, looking up at us with uncertain eyes. His English was good, but not good enough for this exchange. Probably no language is.
“That’s a—“ he stopped, and his eyes took on an apologetic mist. “That’s an interesting day.”
“Where were you?” That’s the question now and has been for several years. It has the feel of an icebreaker or cocktail party chit-chat. “Where were you when you heard?” People my age were at school, watching the situation unfold on big televisions stacked high on rolling carts, their fears reined in by teachers who just wanted to go home. “Where were you when the world was unmoored?” Like a boat’s anchor snapping in a storm, we had scarcely known what was even happening, America was suddenly a subject of the world. The magic that held our floating country just out of reality’s reach shuddered, groaned and toppled down. “Where were you,” the question may well be, “when the scales fell from your eyes?”
That’s a difficult question though, because I do not remember the spirit of September 12 being appreciably different than the one of September 11. It took a while to realize that things would never be the same. This wasn’t like Pearl Harbor — a day of tragedy followed by a fearsome reckoning for our enemies. The sleeping dragon was awake, but its first order was to lash out in blind, wounded frenzy. There were promising days. The weapons of mass destruction had been “found.” The real culprit had been identified. “We will rebuild.” “Mission accomplished.” Given the benefit of hindsight, one of Bush’s finest moments went relatively unremarked on at the time: his visiting a mosque, and calling the teachings of Allah “good and peaceful.”
But the real spirit of September 12 would set in over the coming months and years, as charade after charade of exceptionalism was exposed as an empty shell — how long it had been so was hard to say. Soldiers went over and fought and died and came back with tales that were hard to tell. Some of them played soccer with Iraqi children amidst the smoke and rubble of bombed-out schools. Some watched effigies of their President burned before their eyes.
The narrative had grown complex.
Things were no simpler back home, where our glorious campaign against terrorism mutated into something ugly, shadowy and difficult to quantify. First, we were looking for Osama bin Laden. Then the WMDs. Then Saddam Hussein. Then the WMDs again, and then Osama. Eventually, the American military’s presence in the Middle East just became a constant, and the enemy became ever less tangible. Al Qaeda. The Axis of Evil. Iran. ISIS. And eventually, just to make things simpler, radical Islamic terrorism. Or, if you prefer “Islamic terrorism.” “Islam,”for short or maybe just “foreigners,” out of an abundance of caution. We didn’t know what the bad guys looked like, so we decided it looked like anything that wasn’t ourselves. Nobody knew how to attack it, so we freaked out at anything that moved.
And so the Spirit of September 12 became a fog, settling over everything like the dust of September 11. We started to hide out like some wild old Y2K truther, hunkered down with canned beans, tripwires and an old rifle. We stopped talking to other people — you never can tell which ones are the enemy. We cast wary eyes towards old friends. We dumped billions into our army and took off our shoes in airports. We put bugs in our phones and eyes on our iPhones. We called this vigilance, because who wants to cop to being paranoid? If you squint hard enough, courage and fear end up looking very similar anyway.
What do we mean when we say “never forget?” Never forget September 11? That’d be difficult. September 11 has become a way of life. Never forget the names of the dead? Those who knew them can’t. Those who didn’t never could.
Perhaps we mean something deeper. Never forget the highest ideals of the American spirit, insofar as they ever really existed in the first place. If so, then we have forgotten entirely. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, and entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Now we might say that all men are created equal, but you’re certainly a little more equal if you were born here, especially if your parents were born here. You’re entitled to life, but that life would be better lived back wherever you came from until we can figure out what’s going on. You’re entitled to liberty, but those liberties are subject to the fears of the government, and you retain them only by the state’s good graces.
And the pursuit of happiness? Well. We’re at war.
So instead of “never forgetting” September 11, it might be better to say we’re clinging to September 12. The low rumble of a frightening new era. The era of homeland security, and color-coded terror alerts. A constant, internal din of distant sirens calling us to arms against an invisible enemy, somewhere. Everywhere. Here?
I can see no way out of this. If the enemy is “Islam,”then there is no victory. If the goal is safety, then we’re filling a bottomless cup: How much safety is safe enough? If we’re fighting to protect an American Way of Life, then we need to look to September 12 as the day a new definition of America dawned, and that way of life is only preserved in the fighting itself.
On the morning of September 11, I was not in school. It was my little sister’s sixth birthday — the last complicated birthday party she ever had. My family and I, we opened presents and listened to the radio, supremely confident in our way of life, and how inalterable it was.
Suddenly over the radio, and I remember it clearly, a man’s dulcet voice sounding flummoxed and halting. “We’re getting reports of a plane that has flown into the World Trade Center.”
It’s strange that I remember it so well because it didn’t seem like that big of a deal at the time. I pictured, for whatever reason, a small plane. It couldn’t be that bad. It didn’t put a speed bump in the birthday party. It barely slowed down the morning at all. Nothing, at that time, had seemed to change.
As it turns out, it was going to be an interesting day. The first of many.