When I was in high school and college, I used to wonder about people of my parents’ generation and earlier who could tell you exactly where they were and what they were doing when they heard that President Kennedy had been shot in Dallas. Surely they don’t completely remember something that happened 30+ years ago, I would think. There must be some fuzziness, some filling in the gaps. My closest personal analogue was the Challenger disaster, which happened when I was in grade school, but I only had/have vague memories of class stopping and somebody wheeling a TV into the room so we could watch what was happening. I can’t, for example, remember whether they brought the TV in after the explosion or before, so that we could all see the launch.
But after September 11, 2001, I understand what people who still vividly recall the Kennedy assassination are talking about. So many details of that day remain vivid in my head, from hearing the initial reports that a private plane had accidentally crashed into the WTC on the radio in my office, to hearing about the second crash and going upstairs to an office that had a TV, to the crowds gathered around that TV who watched as the towers eventually collapsed, to huddling with my co-workers in my boss’s office as we tried to figure out what to do with ourselves. Going back to work on our urban development projects wasn’t going to happen, so we just sat there listening to the radio and occasionally going back upstairs to watch more TV. I remember hearing a (false, as it turned out) report that there were still several planes unaccounted for, then collectively deciding, for some reason, that the city of Pittsburgh might be a target (Flight 93 did crash in western PA, after all), and heading home.
Those memories are still easy to recall, but 14 years after the fact they don’t seem so urgent anymore. That urgency has been tempered with the knowledge of what happened in the aftermath of the attack: the heroism of the emergency workers who quite literally gave everything they had to give to save other people’s lives, the outpouring of goodwill directed toward America from countries all over the world, and the many things America did subsequently, and is still doing, to sour and squander that goodwill.
Still, though the memories of that day may have subsided a bit, September 11 remains ever-present today. Al-Qaeda is weaker today than it was then, but its paramilitary offshoots are still quite active in Syria and Yemen, and its disowned child, ISIS, consumes a huge, probably disproportionate, amount of our national attention. The wars America launched after 9/11, in Afghanistan and Iraq, have never really ended even though America has largely extricated itself from the heaviest of the fighting. Politicians who need to throw a quick scare into the public still find the invocation of 9/11 a useful tool, even when it doesn’t make any sense. We still have a president conducting military policy while operating under a badly outdated and dangerously broad Congressional resolution written and approved by frightened and confused legislators in the heat of the immediate post-attack period. People’s baser instincts are still animated by what happened that day, as we see every time somebody guilty of “looking Muslim” winds up being the victim of a hate crime. The emotions of 9/11 haven’t gone away.
Next year will be 15 years since the attack, and I expect emotions to run higher than they seem to have run this year, since, for whatever reason, we have an affinity for anniversaries that end in the numbers “0” and “5.” But even those emotions will have to fade eventually. There are children in high school today who weren’t alive on September 11, 2001, and they don’t have those easily recalled memories, those latent but incredibly powerful emotions. They’ll look at people like me and wonder how it’s possible that I can so easily recall the details of something that happened on a day so long ago. Hopefully by, say, the time they’re out of college, we’ll have finally stopped allowing those memories and those emotions to control so much of our politics and our lives today.