We’ve learned the wrong lesson from 9/11

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.

Cannot forget

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.

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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.

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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.

Just 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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

The reason we’re here: To touch a life

I scroll past the vast majority of memes I see online because they are shallow and often untrue. They are easily misunderstood. I speak from experience; I comment on them occasionally, and have been told I missed the point.

But this one caught my attention. For one, I hadn’t seen it before. For two, I like the message it presents.

I actually like it.

… touch the past, touch a rock

My wife and I recently spent a weekend at the Ark Encounter and Creation Museum in northern Kentucky. We touched rocks, and other things.

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Both attractions were designed and built by Answers in Genesis, an organization that “advocates Young Earth creationism on the basis of its literal, historical-grammatical interpretation of the Book of Genesis,” according to Wikipedia. While there, I bought a book, “A Flood of Evidence; 40 reasons Noah and the Ark still matter” by Ken Ham, who founded Answers in Genesis in 1994, and Bodie Hodge, his son-in-law.

They use the Bible to prove itself.

If you believe the Bible is the inspired Word of God, which I do, that’s fine, but I don’t see this book convincing anyone of its truths who doesn’t accept the Bible’s inerrancy. That eliminates most Americans.

The book, the Ark and especially the Creation Museum use rocks to explain how fossils formed quickly when plants (mostly) and animals died. Plants and animals that die naturally don’t fossilize; they decay. It took a quick catastrophic event, such as Noah’s Flood, to bury plants and animals in a hurry, allowing them to fossilize.

Noah’s Flood also formed the Grand Canyon. That masterpiece of God’s creation was not formed over millions of years by a tiny river. The book and museum discuss this too.

And they mention Mount St. Helens which, when it erupted in 1980 and again in 1982, made rock formations in hours and days that scientists previously thought took millions of years.

Rocks, as this meme indicates, are a window to the past. We interpret the rocks differently, depending on what we’re looking for.

But the past is gone. We can’t change it. We interpret it and try to re-interpret it (are some people truly trying to say the Holocaust never existed, or that man never walked on the moon?). We study the past to learn how best to live today. Or, that should be why we study the past.

… touch the present, touch a flower

I’ve been on a weeding kick recently. Our yard and gardens are full of them, unfortunately. It seems like it’s a never-ending battle. Weeds choke off plants and flowers.

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I’m not an expert on flowers, but I see them bloom for a time, then disappear. Annuals bloom for one season, then die. Perennials bloom year after year, going dormant during the winter, then re-emerging in all their beauty in the spring.

I think this is what the meme is trying to say. Flowers are beautiful today. We enjoy them in the present. We’d better, because tomorrow they’re gone.

Even perennials don’t live forever. They have to be replaced with other flowers eventually, if you want to keep your garden colorful.

A sunset. A rainbow. Sparkling ripples on a slow-moving lake or river. A fall color tour. A gentle breeze.

Such beauty. Nature can be so wonderful.

Then, it changes. The beauty is gone.

Night. The storm that precedes the rainbow. Crashing waves. A frigid winter snow. No breeze at all in 90-degree heat.

We endure, hoping for the touch of a flower once again.

… touch the future, touch a life

People matter. We so often forget this.

If you’ve read this far, hopefully I have touched you at some level.

But touching a life involves so much more than words on a printed page.

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I volunteer at a food pantry twice a week. I’ve met an 18-year-old girl who is head of household for her family of six. Her mother passed away a year ago, and now she’s in charge at home. At 18.

We at the food pantry can help her for a day or two. What then?

I also volunteer at a once-a-week after-school pick-up basketball ministry that our church youth director organizes. After playing for a couple of hours on a recent Thursday, one of the young men told us how he’s trying to build a life for himself and lead his teenage brother down the right path, even though both of their parents – who are separated – are drug addicts.

Can we make a difference in the lives of either of these families? Are we touching the future when we connect with young people at these events?

I come home to a nice house in a decent neighborhood. No one is forcing me to touch a life.

Actually, that’s not true.

Since I call myself a Christian, and since I try to live by the Bible, God Himself commands in that Bible that I must connect with other people at some level.

You are watching. I know you are. If I call myself a Christian, what do you see?

I must serve.

Far too many “Christians” use the Bible to try to justify sinful lifestyles. Jesus was crucified for saying exactly this. The apostle Paul was stoned, flogged and beaten for saying exactly this.

What does it mean to touch a life?

It’s not about me, trying to justify myself at all. That’s an easy way to identify “fake Christians.” What’s our motive? Is it to serve others? Is it to touch a life?

This will be our legacy. If we want to touch the future, we MUST touch a life. That life will continue on after I’m gone.

Already, I’ve lived in South Euclid, Ohio; Bloomfield Hills, Mich.; New Kensington, Pa.; East Lansing, Mich.; Ridgewood, N.J.; Pickford, St. Ignace and Saginaw, Mich.; Rockford, Ill.; and Elyria, Ohio.

I touch people, and I’m gone. You touch me, and I leave. I take part of you with me wherever I go.

Because you have touched my life.

Thank you.

I hope I am worthy of your time. I hope I have helped you get just a little closer to God because I was there.

Don’t be too hard on me when I let you down. I try not to criticize when I see others fall. We’re in this life together.

The future will change because both of us are here in the present. That’s a given.

How will the future change? For good or evil?

May the rock and the flower guide us as we learn how to touch a life. No matter where our lives take us.