I was six years old, in my room getting ready for another Tuesday of second grade in the Pacific Northwest, when my mother appeared in the doorway crying, still wearing her pale rose robe.
Her expression, though somewhat blurred in my memory by 15 years, petrified me, a medusa of fear and sorrow. She called my younger siblings and me to her, and we piled in her arms on my parents’ bed as the small television in the corner of their bedroom showed airplanes hitting towers. And she sobbed. And I cried, and feared something I could not name, because she feared something she could barely name. What did it mean? There was nothing to understand except that the grownups were afraid. The day went on. I do not know how.
From then, as the country, and through our influence the world, has marked the anniversary of the attacks on 9/11 each year, the uncertainty of that day has contracted almost to nothing. For whatever questions the country asked a decade and a half ago, most have been answered. But even as we can document each piece, each player, move, and event that shaped those 24 hours, that single spin of the globe grows more mysterious in its pull on the world and our lives. For those questions we have not answered have ceased in some way to matter, overshadowed by what has followed.
The world that preceded it was lost. It was a world I lived in briefly, one my parents welcomed me into with hope, a world where the computer’s imminent contact with the end of a millennium could prompt normal, educated suburbanites to stock up on cans of beans, but also one where bubbles didn’t seem like they needed to be bubbles and the boom didn’t need to bust. But nothing was ever the same again.
That’s the kind of phrase we use to talk about September 11: “Nothing was ever the same again.” It’s a day that “changed history forever.”
We elide 15 years of human action since into a single calendar day, give it Chronos’ sickle and hourglass and call it Time, a force outside our control. We absolve ourselves of the responsibility for everything that came after by reifying the inciting violence as something with capital letters. Terror. Let’s wage a war on that. And why not? Francis Bacon called for “advanced interrogation” of Nature in Novum Organum, and we’ve been at war ever since. We wage wars on the abstract all the time — let’s bomb Poverty, go scorched-earth against Drugs.
But whatever 9/11 is today, we made it so.
And by “we” I mean you, the grownups. The ones who were afraid of something they could name.
Those like me—old enough to remember it but little before—have never known a politics not driven by fear. And it’s a ubiquitous accusation this presidential election, that the opponent is just appealing to fear; the response an outraged, “That’s not my America!”
But it is, in fact, my America. There is no other America for me to know. Just the one that demands I go through a complicated mating dance, a dreary striptease, before boarding the plane. Just the America that doublespeaks so deftly it destroyed privacy in the name of patriotism. Just the one that equipped and encouraged its police to be military occupiers. The America that can warp what should be an opportunity to remember the event of the loss of American life into a ritual where, for new resolve, sorrow is twisted into martial anger, plowshares beaten into swords.
That fear allows you to wrap up the loss of 2,977 lives in ritual significance and claim to be swept along by the tide and time. An act of war necessitated war, apparently a war with no demilitarized zone waged on the very idea of asymmetric war by non-state actors.
Just think of how many of your fellow citizens would rather believe that the events of September 11 were an inside job than admit how vulnerable we were and are and always must be in this world. Violence for political expediency makes sense to them, there is an order to it. Violence to make a statement, to remind us of the fragility of our decadence and to show us that there are people who fear God more than they fear pain and death, is too much to bear. It’s a tidier world where secret cabals orchestrate the rise and fall of nations.
My peers and I never knew the illusion of moral clarity in international politics. We share a Cold War nostalgia for the simplicity of facing an evil empire, but know only the world you’ve made in trying to recreate that paradigm, maintain primacy. We look around and wonder how close we might be to the apocalypses we watch on screens; a civilization-ending crisis seems to promise a chaos we can understand, a chaos of potentiality and an escape from the inquietude of banal technocratic existence. There would be clarity in a real wasteland—the spiritual one around us is overwhelming. We would know what to do now if myth became reality and we were plunged into the state of nature.
In his lectures on “Power and Responsibility,” Romano Guardini warns man of the danger he faces as his power over nature and his fellows grows; the power may outstrip him, grown to a scale beyond humanity, and leave the individual lost in the crowd. Mass man is swept away by forces he has created and by the movements of society. The events of September 11 have become so large with the significance of what has followed that responsibility has hardly been taken or demanded. It is enough to say, look, those towers fell and here we are.
Global surveillance, nuclear weapons, enormous wealth all have become forces outside our control. The War on Terror, terrorism, fear itself drive you to euphemize the world, here-there-be-dragons-like, with “no-fly zones” and interventions and democracy. It’s all bigger than human, but they are human who die for it.
The feeling of helplessness before the tide is an illusion. History has not ended with Bluetooth speakers and purple yes-I-voted finger waves from women in niqabs. As Guardini reminds us, man is a free agent in history and must take responsibility for his actions. We are all granted a share of power in life, if only over our own selves. Whether a man has power over men and nations, or only power over his use of an afternoon, he can and must take responsibility for the consequences of his actions.
The anniversary of September 11 is and ought to be the opportunity to remember those who took such responsibility. Rather than a “day that changed history forever,” it was a day where men made history, and invoking it make the world still. But most importantly, it was a day where individuals stepped forward from the crowd, from the masses, to use what power they had in that moment. Emergency responders, office workers, the passengers of Flight 93 all took responsibility for themselves for the love of their fellow men. Their stories and their examples are not what I can remember from that day, but are what has made that day mean more than the memory of my weeping mother, more than a future of fear.
Micah Meadowcroft is an editorial assistant at The American Conservative.
Editor’s note: This story’s first paragraph has been corrected; the author was in second grade, not first.