The eighth anniversary of September 11 brings cloudy skies, and rightly so. Unlike that blindingly clear day, everything is murky now. We are mired in a jobless recovery from a recession that snuck up on us, an no one seem to really know how to fix health care, and everyone is cranky about it. We expected that September 11 would change the way we live radically, instantaneously, but it didn’t – instead it visited upon us a long, slow, steep decline that we still fail to comprehend.
I remember calling my mother in Saint Louis as the towers burned. ‘I have been waiting for something like this to happen my whole life,” I said. “That’s terrible,” she replied. “People are jumping out of the buildings.” “I don’t mean that,” I tried to explain, “I mean that this is a defining moment for my generation. I always heard about Pearl Harbor, about the assassinations, about events that everyone else remembers happening with a sense of manifest destiny. And with that came an identity, a place in history that shaped how you look at the world in the space of a moment. Everything that happens from this moment on will be thought of in terms of before and after this day.”
I still believe that. September 11 set George Bush on a course for disaster but in a more roundabout way it set Barack Obama on a course for victory. If Bush (and so many others complicit in the march to war and financial ruin) had not been so terribly wrong, people never could have made the leap of faith that brought Obama forward. But where that leap of faith will take us remains to be seen. Will his eloquent hopes lead us to a sustainable future? Can one man cure a crippled legislature?
I think the mentality that there were terrorists at the gate created by September 11 allowed bankers to gamble and regulators to turn a blind eye. Like the 1920s after World War I, a war that was decimating a generation provided all the rationale required to pursue the high life. The post 9/11 world allowed the government and media to hype the beauty of having it now just at the moment that the generation who saw the danger in that philosophy was fading away. No one was willing to say no to anything except personal responsibility. Who knew what the future would bring; why wait when you can Buy It Now, just like on eBay.
And still, for every one of us that has reacted in fear and denial there are so many who have been humbled, who have worked to understand our responsibility to act thoughtfully. It is that appreciation, that sense that if we try to listen we can come to an honest conclusion about what is right for us, that brought us to the conclusion that is Barack Obama. We have so much history to overcome in this process. Not just racism but the politics of money, legislative and judicial inertia, and party organizations that no longer make any sense. Many a good public servant has fallen prey to the duplicitousness of friends and enemies alike.
September 11, the wars, and the Crash of 2008 robbed us of what little trust we had manage to recoup after Watergate and Viet Nam. Restoring it is a tall order for one man, but we have done more with less.