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.

Law and freedom: Can we have both?

I roll through stop signs if there’s no traffic.

I fudged deadlines all the time as a copy editor to get the latest news in the paper.

I jog in the rain, or in snow with 15-degree temperatures (not this year yet, though).

And yet:

I get at least eight hours of sleep every night.

I’ve never received a speeding ticket.

When I’m scheduled to be somewhere, I always show up early.

So, who am I?

I’m a rule-breaker. But I learn the rules first, so I know which ones I can break. And when.

Two plus two equals …

I came down with pneumonia as a college student, so I don’t have the stamina that most of you do. If I don’t get enough sleep, I get sick.

If I break rules, there are consequences. That’s one consequence I don’t want. So I go to bed early every night.

I drive with common sense. I’ve written blogs on this before. Safety is paramount; I drive the speed limit or slightly above, weather conditions permitting. I fudge the law only when it’s safe, and my eyes are wide open. (But I’ll stop at a red light, even if there is no other traffic in sight.)

I married a math expert. Two plus two is always four to her. I’m a journalist at heart. Two plus two could have multiple meanings. Two apples plus two oranges equals four pieces of fruit, but you still have only two apples.

Are you counting fruit, or apples?

… safety …

This is the source of today’s political divide. We don’t know what we’re counting.

One side is all about laws.

The other side is all about humanity.

What happens when law and humanity clash?

We get a government shutdown.

Laws serve a crucial purpose. They give us structure and order. The trash truck comes every Friday. Our City Council signs a contract with the trash hauler to do that. My tax dollars pay for it. That’s the way government works.

Here’s a better example, actually. My tax dollars also help pay for the local police department. Its primary job is to keep the residents of our city, including me, safe. The City Council, the county, the state and the federal governments all pass laws intended to keep us safe. Opioids and illegal drugs hurt people. Thieves and robbers hurt people. Drivers who weave in and out of traffic and/or run red lights risk causing a collision and hurting people.

Laws protect us, and police and the court system defend the right to live without fear for our lives. That’s the goal, anyway.

… or freedom …

But are laws themselves ever oppressive?

Once upon a time, women were not legally allowed to vote. Other laws enforced slavery. It took time, far too much time, before those injustices were legally corrected.

Today’s hottest debate is over illegal immigrants trying to enter this country through Mexico. Immigrants have been doing this for decades, and I’ve read that in recent years the immigration rate has actually declined.

But we now have a president who wants to cut off the illegal immigrants’ entry into this country completely. Illegal, by definition, means they are breaking a law.

But are the immigration laws of this country fair? And are illegal immigrants as evil as Republicans make them out to be?

The answer to the first question must be decided by Congress and the president. The second question? A resounding, “no.”

… or both?

Illegal immigrants are not an organized band of terrorists seeking to destroy American life, as Al-Qaeda was on Sept. 11, 2001. They are mostly women and children fleeing their native countries because their lives are in jeopardy there. Gang wars and violence have destroyed the culture of Honduras and other Central American societies. These women and children have seen relatives and friends die, and face death and/or poverty themselves.

Americans cannot comprehend this. No one in my community is seeking my life.

Why is it so wrong for such people to seek a place to live where they don’t have to fear death every day?

If crime and terrorism are the reasons why, well, those issues are already here. News flash. Illegal immigrants aren’t going to change society much at all.

My wife and I met a 77-year-old woman on Christmas Day while delivering meals to several families in town. She has custody of her two teenage great-grandchildren, because no one else in her family wants them. The teens’ mother is a drug addict and can’t be around her children. The 16-year-old girl has anger issues and screams at the top of her lungs, forcing neighbors to call the police sometimes. The great-grandmother does what she can to keep her fragile family together. They rent a one-bedroom house – which isn’t legal since the teens are a boy and girl. So the boy gets the bedroom and the girl and great-grandma sleep on mattresses in the living room.

They’ve been in this house only a short time, and likely won’t stay long if they can find a place with more bedrooms.

When children move that often, it’s not surprising that they have trouble keeping up in school.

Building a border wall won’t help this family.

We need laws, certainly. We need security, of course. The wall might appease some politicians, but it won’t do much – if anything – to improve security in this country.

Can we pass laws to improve security that actually work? Do our immigration laws assist apples and oranges together, or are we defending the apples and trying to remove the oranges?

What is the fruit of our labor?

Do two and two always equal four, or is there another possible answer?

Our country is full of oranges as well as apples.

Can we enjoy the flavors that both bring to this country?

Is there a way to get creative and keep the law at the same time?