It was a beautiful day in September, a bright blue morning of promise and sunshine. At least it was in Saint Paul, Minnesota; from all the pictures it appeared to be just as gorgeous in Manhattan, too. A far-away city to which I had never been, the unexpected news from there that autumn morning cast a pall over my day, as it did for everyone else who heard it, a pall that mirrored so perfectly the choking cloud of dust and smoke that would pour out over the heart of New York City that morning.
Nine years. So much has happened, at least in my narrow sphere. I have married, fathered children, changed jobs, and started graduate school. But when I cast my eyes on the world, it seems so little has changed. The hasty wars of revenge that the United States launched still drag on, their end seeming no more immanent than when they first began. Drastic regime change has happened in Iraq, Afghanistan, and here at home, and yet I find no more reason to feel any patriotic stirring than I did before.
The attacks that day are continually referred to as an act of war, and I suppose in a way they were. An organized group willfully struck violently and ingeniously at key symbolic points in the infrastructure of a superpower. Eggheads can quibble over whether the acts of international terrorists with no clear national ties or sanction can truly be said to constitute an act of war; every person in America knew before the Towers hit the ground that the United States would be at war with someone, as soon as their leaders found someone to be at war with. For a time, they could even make do with calling the nation to arms against an abstract noun.
Today the controversy rages over the building of an Islamic center two blocks from the World Trade Center site. This proposal has been called triumphalist, an insult to the thousands who perished that day, a further attack on the American way of life. In much of the rhetoric, Ground Zero is referred to, explicitly or implicitly, as holy ground. And yet if this is the case, let’s set aside what may or may not be built around the corner or down the street: what are we ourselves erected right on this only ground? That’s right, office buildings. Commercial office space. Somehow that fails to convey to me the sense that there is any sacred bubble over this site, if we can only put up another towering stack of cubicles to replace the ones that were struck down by evil villains.
The attacks of 11 September 2001 are the culmination of a complex web of government policies, cultural developments, and various religions growing both more radical and more lackadaisical. There is no one focus for blame, much as we would wish there was. There would be nothing more simple that to wrap a neat bow on a group, however vast, demonize them and wipe them out. We are certainly capable of doing so. But the challenge before us, as a nation, as a world, is to rise above that lizard-brain reaction, to rise above our animal natures, and to laboriously work to build a world of peace, justice, and love.