By lex, on September 11th, 2005
It’s hard to believe it’s only been four years.
Four years ago we stared at the television screens in shock and anger, teary-eyed, uncomprehending, lacking the vocabulary. We watched the endless loops of those buildings coming down, the Pentagon on fire, a field in rural Pennsylvania. Four years ago our children looked to us with questioning eyes, asking us wordessly how this could happen. Four years ago we did not quite know how to answer them.
Four years ago we wondered who had done this to us, and why it was done. We wondered how anyone could hate so incandescently that they would kill not only themselves, but nearly three thousand anonymous strangers. Four years ago we were still unaware that there were those who hated us and offered us only two choices: Submit, or die.
Four years ago most of us hadn’t heard of al Qaeda, or bin Laden, or al Zawahiri or al Zarqawi, strange combinations of sounds on our tongues, exotic names that led to exotic places like Kabul and Kanduhar, Najaf and Falluja, none of which we’d heard of either, for the most part.
Four years and one day ago we were sour and divided. One day later, we were just Americans, and all the old divisions were meaningless. Since the disaster fallen upon all of us collectively, the wealthy and the poor, without regard to color or ethnicity or gender no one could possibly gain any political advantage by trying to divide us into smaller groups with competing interests. No one even tried. That was four years ago.
Four years ago, there were those who thought that it was all somehow our fault, that the chickens had come home to roost, that we somehow had it coming to us, that it all made sense. This of course was because of all the bad things we had done through history, and because as a model of democratic government we were fundamentally and irremediably flawed because we were not eternally and spotlessly perfect.
Four years ago those kinds of people mostly had the minimal decency to hold their tongues or speak apart from the rest of us in hushed tones, outside of our hearing. Mostly. The rest of us realized that the only fault lay in the hearts of those who engineered the attack, not in those who were its collective victims.
Four years ago we were about to learn about anthrax.
Four years ago, the international regime of sanctions which kept a mad and evil man who hated us as much as any terrorist (albeit for different reasons) in his box were crumbling under the weight of the obduracy of notional allies who had made billions illegally evading those same sanctions and reckoned there were billions more to make once they fell aside entirely.
Four years ago we cringed, anticipating the next blow. It seemed certain to us that it would come soon. Certainly in less than four years.
Four years ago people danced in the streets of Jenin, and passed candy to exuberant children, and I, for one, vowed that I would not forget.
Four years ago George Bush had not yet stood atop that crushed fire engine with a bull horn and told the monsters that had engineered this calamity that they would soon be hearing from us. We narrowed our eyes and weighed the man whose destiny it would be to lead us through the hard times ahead and nodded our heads in silent affirmation: He would do.
Four years ago we woke up from a long and self-indulgent nap. We discovered that history had not ended, that it too had only been sleeping but that it had found us again and fallen on us with a furious anger. And we answered that anger with grim determination, girded on our shields and bucklers, drew our swords and went to war.
Four years ago we had not liberated 30 million minds whose only mistake was choosing a poor place to be born. Four years ago purple ink on brown fingers would have meant nothing to us, nothing at all.
Four years ago Libya was hard at work on a program to develop weapons of mass destruction.
Four years ago Pakistan could have gone either way.
Four years ago the Syrian army squatted in Lebanon and a “Cedar Revolution” was not even a dream.
Four years ago we had not yet heard the term, “Arab Spring.”
Four years ago, we would soon be hearing the voices of doubt talk about Afghanistan as the “graveyard of empires,” and hear rumors of the cruel Afghan winter. There would be predictions of great loss of human life. A little while after, having been proven wrong yet again, those voices would grow momentarily silent. They would, after all, have a chance to be proven wrong again, and soon. Then, as now, certain people were tireless in their pessimism. The only difference being that most of us didn’t listen to them.
Four years ago our sense of frustrated expectation was not yet sharpened to a fever pitch by the relative ease with which our armed forces can destroy their enemies in the open field of battle. We had not yet persuaded ourselves that somehow building peaceful and democratic societies in places that had never known them would have been possible if only we had crafted a better Phase IV plan.
Four years ago, two thousand young American volunteer soldiers were alive that are not now, free men and women all. Four years ago, tens of thousand of Iraqis and Afghanis were alive who are not now – people scratching out an existence the best way they could in a world that we could only describe as nightmarish but which was their only frame of reference and all that they knew.
Four years ago our minds had not yet learned to balk at balancing that kind of calculus, and meanwhile the treasured voices of the only generation who could help us understand grew weaker and fewer with every passing day.
Four years ago irony was declared to be dead. Four years ago nearly everyone agreed that everything had changed. Four years ago it was possible to be frightened and also resolute, but not the reverse. Four years ago it was not possible to be jaded.
So very much has changed in four years.