Four blocks down the hill from my house and two blocks over is St Anthony of Padua Catholic Parish. At six o’clock last night I was sitting outside on my porch contemplating the writing of this column and the bells in the tower began to ring, just as they do every Saturday evening.
They rang for a long time.
Just as they did in the days after it happened fifteen years ago.
It’s one of those rare occasions when it’s a pretty terrible sound.
I know that reflective essays on the anniversary of the terror attacks are generally supposed to be celebrations of a sort, in the way that funerals are a celebration of the life of the deceased. They tend to be reminders of our national pride, recounting the way we bounced back from a tragedy which most of us found unthinkable before it happened. Such pieces always commemorate not only the victims we lost that day, but the heroism of those who fought back to the last moment, along with the first responders and citizen volunteers who risked – and in far too many cases gave – their lives in aftermath. All of these things are very real and I embrace them wholeheartedly.
And yet, even though I’m probably not supposed to say such things aloud, this is a day when I’m reminded that there’s a darkness and a hardness in my heart which wasn’t there before.
My first impulse on this day, born of long hardened habit, is to say that a lot has changed since then. But with the perspective that comes with gray hair, failing eyesight and creaking joints, I’ve come to feel that perhaps, in too many ways, the world is just the same as it was fifteen years and one day ago, but it’s me that’s changed. Over the decade and a half since the attacks I’ve had to write a number of columns about 9/11 and I went back yesterday and looked at several of them. They were all different, reflecting an evolution in thinking, feelings, reactions, outlook, beliefs. I was a lot younger then… far more libertarian than conservative and wearing rose colored glasses which I didn’t even realize I owned.
I was originally looking for someone or something to blame after the towers came down. I was quickly assured that the target was an evil man named Osama bin Laden. I confess that I paid little attention to foreign affairs in the 90s and I probably didn’t even recognize his name. But I was willing to blame the madman and what I believed to be his small band of radicals for the destruction. But I also wondered why he did it and found myself questioning how some “tiny” group of Muslims could be so upset with a global force for good such as the United States. I certainly wasn’t blaming his entire religion or any specific country, and I was confident that if we could just hunt down this villain and his band of hoodlums things could go back to normal.
My, what a difference fifteen years can make.
I won’t recount all the lessons we’ve learned since then. If you’re reading my work in this space you know it all too well and we’ve each taken our own guidance from the journey. But as for me, I’ve slowly come to understand that we’re not fighting a war. A war is something with a defined set of enemies you can meet and, in the case of the United States military, defeat. But we’re not waging a war against an identifiable, defined enemy and there is no victory in sight. There is no single set of terrorist leaders we can knock out nor some magic number of foot soldiers from al-Qaida, the Taliban, ISIS, Boko Haram, Hezbollah, Al-Shabaab or any of the others which will signal the end to hostilities. That was the old world.
Today we’re fighting a disease. And it’s an illness which metastasized long before some of us even knew the patient was sick. The sickness crops up in far flung places around the world and occasionally breaks out in horrific fashion in our own back yard. It’s gotten into the blood stream of the world, and at least for now we’re stuck fighting the symptoms because nobody has so much as a clue how to concoct an antivirus which can knock it out. And how do we define this disease? As much as I refused to admit it for years after the attacks, there is no separating out the bad apples from the rest of the basket… at least not entirely. We’re fighting an evil ideology which has deep roots in Islam. This is not to say that every Muslim in the world – and certainly not every one in America – supports terror. But it’s equally foolish to deny that this is the fountain from which the poison water flows. I don’t particularly like the look of the guy in the mirror who makes a statement like that, but it would be dishonest to deny it.
The other sad reality I’m forced to face up to is that we will not find ourselves on the cusp of victory if we simply elect the right president this year or listen to the correct set of generals that we’ve somehow been ignoring all this time. That’s not to say that the wrong leaders can’t do even worse or that it’s not important to entrust this mission to the best and most capable hands. We can absolutely do far better than we have been of late. Or we can choose to fall further behind. But either way, we’re not approaching the end of the tunnel yet. We’re in this for the long haul and we’ll be fighting both abroad and at home for the rest of our lives and probably the lives of our children and theirs as well. It’s a fight we can’t duck away from because the alternative would be to stop fighting… and that would mean extinction. Victory in this brave new world may simply mean staying ahead of the disease and surgically destroying tumors everywhere they pop up for as long as it takes.
So there you have it. These are my memories, my thoughts, my inner darkness and the commemoration I would share with you on this date, fifteen years later. Please don’t mistake my message here. I still have hope for the future. It’s just a very different future than the one I once imagined.