Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
So said George Santayana, a Spanish-born American author, in 1905.
Perhaps that’s why my wife and I, during a long weekend in New York for a wedding, took a train and subway ride into the Big Apple to see the 9/11 memorial.
As a friend told us, that’s something you do only once. It’s a sober reminder of what happened on one particular day 18 years ago.
Once is enough for a powerful reminder like that.
If you were old enough to remember that day, those two airplanes crashing into the iconic World Trade Center towers provided memories you’ll never forget. I was a newspaper copy editor in Michigan at the time, watching the surreal events unfold on deadline.
Our daily newspaper published several editions that day, because the news happened so fast. Our first edition didn’t even mention the attack. The last edition – literally a stop-the-presses moment – reported the panic and shock of a nation-defining tragedy.
Since that day, our society has changed permanently, and not necessarily for the better. We no longer trust each other, not in airports – security is tighter than it’s ever been – or even on the sidewalk, where we stare at our phones or listen to our music, oblivious to the world around us.
Burned-out fire trucks and ambulances. Twisted steel of the north and south towers. Charred pieces of the airplanes-turned-weapons. Snippets from the morning TV talk shows, interrupted by updates from Ground Zero. Smoke billowing in New York, at the Pentagon and in western Pennsylvania.
The memorial captures all of it. And much more.
As if we could ever forget.
Fear replaces trust
It struck me that people in other parts of the world face these fears every day. Imagine the Kurds in Syria right now. Will they be alive tomorrow?
We lived through that once.
We have the capability to prevent such attacks, for the most part anyway, by stepping up security. Cameras watch us everywhere – not just at airports, but at businesses, street corners and even some private homes.
We don’t trust anyone anymore.
Why is there so much evil in the world today? Because that’s what we expect of each other.
We act out our fears.
If, instead, we would look for the good in the world, we’d see it. I discovered that as we raised our three sons. Give them a little age-appropriate responsibility, and they’ll step up. A little alone time because Mom and Dad both need to run a short errand. Then, our oldest driving to an out-of-town event with his best friend as a teenager. Eventually, all three of our sons went away to college.
We trusted them, because we’d prepared them. And they passed with flying colors.
Perhaps that works at home, but society no longer operates that way.
Unity, for a brief moment
If your skin color is different, if your nationality or religious beliefs are different, you are not to be trusted. That didn’t start on Sept. 11, 2001, of course, but it sure increased after that date.
Immediately after 9/11, this nation unified like I’d never seen it do before. That lasted about three weeks. Then people stopped going to church and praying for each other, seeking solace in the unity that comes from a shared experience.
In a sense, we’ve forgotten the past already. We’ve forgotten what unifies us.
We care only about what divides us. Our politics, our religion, our nationality, our social values, our language. We build walls, literal ones and figurative ones in our hearts.
Every one of us, including me, does this.
When our sons were learning to drive, I told them not to trust any other driver on the road. Act as if all of them are idiots, so that when another driver does something stupid, you won’t be surprised. And you’ll be ready to react.
That’s good advice on the road. Unfortunately, we live all of our lives that way, don’t we?
We prove ourselves untrustworthy. Every time I drive on a highway – every single time – I get passed by drivers going 15 mph or more over the speed limit. So do you, unless you’re the speeder. There aren’t enough police cars out there to prevent this.
Identity theft. Robo calls. Inferior products (we don’t build things the way we used to; I could write a column just about this). I’m renting a tux for an upcoming wedding; the company doesn’t want me to pick it up early, and they want it back on Sunday, the day after the wedding. They don’t trust me to keep it even one extra day, even though I’m paying more than $200 for the privilege of holding onto that tux for, like, four days. Not five.
The new normal
Why do we remember 9/11? Is it to point fingers at the bad guys?
Is that all we learned?
Have we forgotten what unifies us?
Every one of us is the bad guy, actually. Each of us, including you and me, is an enemy to someone. If you call yourself a Republican or a Democrat, you’re an enemy. If you’re white or black or Middle Eastern, you’re an enemy to someone. If you’re a Christian or a Muslim, you’re Satan personified to someone.
We have more in common than we think we do. 9/11 proved that, if only for three weeks.
The fallout proves how much we’ve forgotten.
Why visit the 9/11 memorial in New York?
How do we prevent such a tragedy from happening again? While we haven’t had an attack of that scale on our soil since, we have mass shootings all the time. Most of them are internal, not from outside terrorists.
We no longer trust each other. We put up walls and stockpile weapons to protect ourselves. The spiral deepens.
I went for a jog through the neighborhood shortly after we bought our house two years ago. I left the front door open, since I wasn’t planning to be gone long. My neighbor noticed and said I shouldn’t do that, because there’s teenagers around who will steal stuff.
Even in suburban America, this is the world we live in. We’re hardly safe even in our own homes.
The world has come to our front porch. We’ve slammed the door, and locked it out.
This is our 9/11 legacy. I’m afraid we’ve missed the lesson we needed to learn.