September 12th: Getting Over September 11th

At this point, everyone and his sister has written something about the September 11th anniversary, and I’m not really sure if I have much to add to the mix. But since I’m so darned opinionated, I just can’t not say anything at all. So here goes. My thoughts are sort of scattered, so forgive me if this is a tad disjointed. I’ve got a lot of concepts whizzing around in my head, fighting to get out. We’ll just see what order they come in.

When examined with 10 years of hindsight, I don’t think the events on 9/11 are really as far reaching and fundamentally life-altering as pundits like to paint them. Tragedies happen every day. As my Facebook circle of friends gets ever bigger, one thing becomes more and more clear: awful things happen to good people all the time.

I don’t mean to disparage the events of 9/11 at all. It was an awful day that I’ll remember for my entire life. For a while, I wasn’t sure if people I knew had been killed that day. I first heard about the first plane crash as I was on my way to read gas meters for the day. I was listening to my favorite early morning radio show at the time, and they made some jokes about a plane crashing into the Twin Towers. At first I just thought they were being their usual irreverent selves, but then I realized a plane had actually crashed into one of the Twin Towers. Like everyone else, my first thought was that it was a small plane. I switched over to AM to listen to news radio.

It wasn’t a small plane.

I remember sitting on the couch that evening, watching the news with my wife, and wondering if the world was ever going to be the same again.

Almost 3,000 people died that day. Almost 9,000 were injured. But as far as long-reaching effects are concerned, it wasn’t the effects of 9/11 that changed the world. It was the effects of 9/12. The way we (as a individuals, communities, a nation, and a world) responded to what had happened.

After all, we’ve had worse disasters, both as a nation and as a globe. The Galveston Hurricane of 1900 claimed as many as 12,000 Americans. The San Francisco earthquake in 1906 took as many as 6,000. The Haiti earthquake killed over 300,000 people. The tsunami in the Indian Ocean killed 240,000.

What was 9/11?

19 terrorists using box cutters to hijack 4 planes and turn them into weapons. Prior to 9/11, hijackings were all about leverage. Using hostages to make certain demands. Or blowing planes up to make political statements. Using the planes as weapons? That was a one time approach to terrorism that will be hard to pull off again. The days of plane passengers passively sitting back and waiting for the terrorists to do whatever they feel like are over.

There was terrorism before 9/11. While at BYU, I did a semester in Jerusalem, where bombings were a regular enough occasion that it was hard to walk through the city without seeing big honking guns on soldiers peppered throughout the area. 9/11 forced America to do something it had successfully avoided up to that point: realize that we’re vulnerable to the same forces at play elsewhere in the world. It forced the world to realize that terrorist attacks could go far beyond tens and hundreds of casualties.

9/11 was the world waking up from a dream and realizing it was living in a nightmare. But it was a nightmare that had been brewing for years and decades previous to 9/11.

One thing that I’m realizing more and more is that tragedy and poor choices don’t work like they do in the movies. There’s no big alarm that goes off. No menacing sound that plays in the background. Everything doesn’t go into slow motion or become sepia-toned.

Life goes on.

We’re living in what’s being called the Great Recession today. Life goes on, just like I’m sure it went on in the Great Depression. Just like it went on under Communism in Eastern Europe. Just like it goes on in Sudan or other war torn countries.

Like I said: awful, terrible things happen every day. All over the world. 9/11 made us realize we Americans didn’t live in a sheltered bubble, immune to some of those terrible things.

Events like 9/11 serve as marking points in global history not because of what happened during those events, but rather because of how we all respond to those events. The war in Iraq, the war in Afghanistan, taking off our shoes when we go through metal detectors at the airport, the state of the economy, the Bush/Kerry election, the Obama/McCain election, Sarah Palin–none of these and countless other events were the result of the terrorists’ actions on 9/11.

They were the result of the choices we made to deal with those actions.

To me, overemphasizing the events on 9/11 is akin to trying to avoid personal responsibility for one’s actions. It would be oh so nice if the bad choices I make in life could all be someone else’s fault. And some people choose to behave that way. They live in a constant state of “if only _________ hadn’t _________,” then I’d be happy. To me, that’s a sure fire way to never be happy.

Again, terrible things happen every day. To many people. And if you wait long enough, they will happen to you, too. That’s not pessimism speaking, folks. Them’s the facts. You can make all the “right” decisions, and tragedy will still strike. Expect it. Count on it. But don’t let that rule your life. Don’t spend so much time brooding on those tragedies (whether past or future) that you let the rest of your life slip away.

People like to bring up the fact that we as a nation are more divided than ever now. That the days of joining together as a nation the way we joined together after 9/11 are over and done with. But do they forget how bitterly divided the nation was after the Bush/Gore elections? I’d like to think that we as a nation are still as we have been, are, and will be: united in a dream of a better country and a better world. The exact specifics of that dream may be argued, but the ultimate goal is the same.

19 terrorists are not representative of the human race. I believe that men and women are fundamentally good, as a whole. 9/12 proved that for me. We came together in a way we hadn’t for decades, and if and when tragedy strikes again–as it will–those of us who remain will continue to come together and support one another. Yes, other tragedies have come about due to the choices of 9/12. But tragedies will come about no matter what choices we make. We have to make the best decisions we can, and then live with the consequences.

To me, that concept is liberating. For better or worse, the effects of 9/11 have–for the most part–been determined by the choices we made, not by the actions of those 19 terrorists. I think that same principle can be applied on an individual level as well: when tragedy comes, we need to remember that the bigger effect of that tragedy will be determined by how we choose to deal with it, because ten years after that personal tragedy, I can almost guarantee you that you’ll be able to look back at your life and see that how you are now is much more dependent on what you did with the cards you were dealt than on what the cards were to begin with.

That’s all I have to say about that for today. It’s far more preachy than I’d like to be typically, but 9/11 has me in a bit of a funk, and I often write to get myself out of those funks. Thanks for coming along for the ride.

Happy September 12th.

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