Do you remember where you were when you heard the news?
Every generation has to answer that question sooner or later.
Members of the Greatest Generation always could pinpoint where they were when they heard about Pearl Harbor and the death of Franklin Roosevelt.
To this day, Baby Boomers can tell you where they were when they learned about the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, the Apollo 11 moon landing, and the resignation of Richard Nixon.
Every Gen Xer can tell you where he or she was when news broke of the Challenger explosion.
And all of us who were alive and aware on Sept. 11, 2001, can tell you exactly where we were when we heard about the terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon and the crash of United 93 in a Pennsylvania field.
Yet on this 20th anniversary of that horrific day, “Where were you?” has been replaced by deeper questions that require Americans everywhere to reflect on the state of the nation and our relationship to one another.
Do you remember the remarkable displays of national unity that followed the attacks, born out of deep grief, righteous anger and confidence that the United States would somehow, someday bring the attackers to justice? We saw 150 members of Congress gather on the Capitol steps to sing “God Bless America.” The public rallied around George W. Bush, a president elected with a minority popular vote less than a year before. We didn’t talk about red states and blue states in those days. There was only the United Sates, resolved to stamp out the terrorist organization behind the attacks.
Now it’s 2021.
Imagine, God forbid, a similar strike against the United States, a nation now so polarized that even routine policy issues are weaponized for political gain.
Would we unite as we did after 9/11? Are we willing to look past political disagreements and, perhaps, sacrifice some personal comfort for the greater good? Or would we simply look to blame a person or group that holds views different from our own? Are we the nation that made common cause against the Axis and al-Qaida – or have we become a house perpetually divided against itself, unable to muster a united response to a national crisis?
The questions keep coming. How has the memory of the terror attacks shaped the life decisions of members of Generation 9/11 – the youngsters who learned about the attacks at the breakfast table or in their classrooms.
Tens of thousands, of course, already have answered the question. Some have studied Arabic and Islamic culture, the better to understand the challenges of the diverse, complex post-9/11 world. Today, they are early in their careers in the foreign service, in international development or business or with nongovernmental organizations.
But it’s a different group that’s uppermost in our minds today: the thousands of first responders who served at the time and continue to suffer the consequences. They didn’t think twice before entering into harm’s way in an effort to save lives, and later search for the victims left in 9/11′s wake. And there are those who responded to 9/11 by entering military service, fighting to eradicate the terrorists behind the attacks and to ensure that the U.S. homeland is safe. Some who enlisted hadn’t even been born on 9/11 but were inspired to serve by the examples of parents and older siblings and friends. Countless thousands served multiple tours of duty, and many died in a war that concluded just days ago. However messy the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan – and it was never going to be pretty – these soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines performed brilliantly by all accounts. That leads us to a final question.
What are we doing to honor those who served after 9/11, along with those who died in the attacks? That’s one question each of us must answer in our own hearts. Gratitude would be a good start.