While previous generations know exactly where they were when Kennedy was assassinated or the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, few of this generation will ever forget what they were doing on the morning of September 11, 2001, when terrorists crashed planes into the twin towers of the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and a field in Pennsylvania.
Now we have passed the tenth anniversary of the day when America changed forever, while the world watched in sympathy. We could have embraced the solidarity of other nations and moved in a direction of fostering greater understanding and peace; instead, our leaders sponsored a national passivity, launching unfunded retaliatory wars while cutting taxes and encouraging the country to go about its regular business. Now we live in an age of suspicion and illusory threats, mired in sovereign debt firmly rooted in those decisions of ten years ago. We have embraced Big Brother under the aegis of the Department of Homeland Security and the Patriot Act, and have successfully compromised our freedoms in the process.
I suspect we will never fully recover from that day. Unlike the attack at Pearl Harbor seventy years prior, the images of September 11, 2001 were captured on thousands of amateur videos and photographs, and disseminated by a 24/7/365 news cycle that did not exist in earlier times.
I also suspect that we will never be able to completely tally the financial cost. This summer’s argument over the national debt might never have occurred were it not for 9/11. President Obama recently pegged the cost of the resulting so-called “War on Terror” at $1.29 trillion, while a recent Brown University study came in at a price of close to $4 trillion.
And then there is the personal and emotional cost. How many families are missing critical members either from the attacks themselves, or from the wars that followed? And what is the ultimate price tag of a missing or maimed parent or child? Can it be reduced merely to a lifetime of lost wages and opportunity, or should we be adding on all the costs the survivors continue to incur? And what about all the contributions these people, and their subsequent generations, will never make? Because in these attacks, we lost not only the individuals themselves, but the worlds and wonders they would have gone on to create.
The damage to our national psyche, our national loss of innocence, is less talked about, but no less profound. In our color-coded world of threat assessment, what is the sum of the personal energy we expend worrying about when the next attack will come? And how do we measure all the little items that we don’t even think about, but that tack additional cost onto everything we do. I suspect that none of us question the price of the enhanced drivers licenses, or the increased price of a passport. What about the additional gas we waste as we idle at the Canadian border? Is the Post Office failing not because of poor business planning, but rather because security concerns make mailing everything less convenient and more expensive? And let’s not forget the entire industry that has grown up around getting us safely on and off planes, the legion of little plastic bottles and one quart clear plastic bags that have been created especially for our liquids, and the army of TSA agents who police our shampoo and conditioner compliance.
Perhaps the greatest price we have paid, though, is the loss of trust–of our government, of people who don’t look like us, of anyone who disagrees with us. We believed we were safe in our homes, on our playgrounds, in our offices, and we were wrong. We paid the price then, in the national horror of watching those buildings collapse, and we continue to pay the price now, as we lead our lives buried under the weight of our collective anxiety.
On September 10, 2001, the culture of fear that existed in this country was vague and disorganized, hovering around the fringes of society, and espoused mostly by people we viewed as a somewhat lunatic fringe. On September 11, 2001, that fringe became the mainstream, given credence and legitimacy under the rubric of the largest expansion of government and its authority in our history. Today, we live in a world vastly different than that of September 10, 2001, one where we gladly exchanged our liberties of freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom from unreasonable search and seizures, for a mythical feeling of security.
Ten years ago, I would have been applauded for defending the rights of all to state their opinions. Today, I will be judged harshly by many for saying what I believe, and will be deemed unpatriotic because I dare to speak against what this country has become.
Today, the cost of being a good American seems to rest in the ability to keep one’s mouth shut.