Relentlessly time marches on. Today marks 13 years since the frightful day the redefined America in the 21st century. And with new conflicts in eastern Europe and the middle east, a deadly Ebola epidemic in Africa, and racial tensions in the heartland of America, it almost seems quaint to spend the time to stop and think about events that happened so long ago.
It’s a date that sits in the history books for most. And yet, it’s still a date that feels deeply personal. At the same time, this marker makes me realize that all wounds do heal over time.
A series of events that use to make it difficult to think of labor day as merely the end of summer, as a time to get into the fall. So overwhelming was the pain of those early September days that it kept repeating itself, increasing one’s level of anxiety as the calendar made another turn to its 9th month.
The beginning of a war that seems to see no end. While Orwell talked about always being at war with Oceania (or was it Eurasia), it seems that yesterday’s enemy seen in Al Qaeda has been replaced by today’s new ISIS forces. It seems that a war that started with a few radicals on our doorsteps in lower Manhattan has now turned into a global conflict where good and evil are hard to differentiate, where our very own nature is reshaped, turning us into a more repressive, more suspicious, and more cynical world.
A tag used to justify our own torturing of our enemies; A tag that used to justify spying on our own people. A tag that used to paint our political opponents as weak and the people we support as strong; A tag that has been manipulated, sliced, and thrown around so much that it’s been drained of its own meaning.
A marker of things that existed before and things that existed after. But most of all a question that has been left unanswered.
In the days after the attacks, there were calls for justice and calls for restraints; In the days after the attacks, there were questions about how and why this happened; In the days after the attacks, there were rushes to judgements and mistakes were made, mistakes that were meant to be corrected.
But since 9/11, there has been a question left uneasily asked and hardly answered: What kind of society do we want to be?
With the hindsight of years, that question has taken on a new nuance. As the historical record, it has become clearer that a large part of the terrorists’ goal on that day was to scare us and turn us into a society that was more in line with their world view. Today, as we dutifully take off our shoes before getting in an airport, as we look over our shoulder when we do an internet search that could be controversial, as we wonder if we or anyone we know ended up being spied on by our own government, we have become our own worst enemy. We are more scared and less hopeful than we were 13 years and 1 day ago. But in the same way, we have seen other types of disaster strike our country, increasing the level of distrust in our institutions: if they cannot protect us, who can?
At the same time, those 13 years have marked amazing leaps in the world’s knowledge.
13 years ago, the Martian landscape was the stuff of Sci-Fi book and today, we have a robot there telling us about the daily state of the red planet; Mars and the moon are known to have had (and possibly still have) water, another amazing development in our understanding of nearby astral objects. And somewhere beyond the edge of our solar system, a man-made ship continues its journey, having pushed beyond it in the past 13 years. We’ve kicked Pluto out of the planetary club and private entities are now routinely delivering equipment (and soon people) in space. And technology has gotten so cheap that hobbyist can now take pictures from the edge of our atmosphere for a few hundred bucks.
13 years ago, the Higgs boson was only a theory but we now have gone a deeper level in understanding the forces that shape our universe; Closer to the self, we’ve sequenced the human genome with 99.99% accuracy, opening up a new era for medical research.
13 years ago, those of us who had mobile phones used them to make phone calls, or maybe text; today, our phones are so powerful that they are starting to replace traditional computing devices (odds are that you are reading this on one right now); 13 years ago, the idea of electric cars that could drive by themselves was the kind of stuff you only saw in movies about the future; today, they’re almost there, with the only question being whether they are a better mode of transportation than drones, another set of robots which didn’t exist beyond sci-fi circles.
13 years ago, AOL and Yahoo were hot companies and Apple was a minor player in the computing industry. The iPod (remember that classic iPod wheel? It died this week, short of its 13th birthday), iPhone, iPad, and app stores didn’t exist. Nor did Facebook, Twitter, Spotify, Uber, or AirB&B. Netflix was famous for its DVD delivery service (DVDs were those plastic discs you got movies on, because streaming movies was uncommon back then); and Amazon was famous as a company only focused on selling physical goods (The Kindle, Amazon web services, Prime, streaming services, etc… were way off in the distance).
We routinely talk to our computers (“OK Google”, “Hey Siri“), so much so in fact that a love story between a man and an artificial intelligence entity doesn’t feel completely futuristic.
So we’re short on flying cars but yesterday’s future is today’s present and it seems that every day, the gap between what is imagined and what is possible shrinks at an accelerating rate. Is it a failure of imagination on our part? Or an acceleration in making the surreal real? I don’t know. But what I do know is that we live in exciting times and we live in scary times. Maybe we always have but in marking the 13th anniversary of the lowest day of collective pain in my lifetime, I realize that the future belongs to us, that we are the ones who can make it better or worse, and that it comes down not only to our leaders but to our own personal choices. “We will never forget” was the easy sentence thrown around after 9/11. Today, I say let’s not forget that the future of America was built on a sense of hope and potential, a sense of accountability from those in power, and let’s rekindle that flame and drive forward to a better world and a better future.
Carlos Dominguez, Mark Ellis, Melissa Vincent, Michael DiPasquale, Cynthia Giugliano, Jeremy Glick, David Halderman, Steve Weinberg, Gerard Jean Baptiste, Tom McCann, David Vera.
This post is part of a continuing series in which I remember those I knew who were lost on that day. Here are the previous years: 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005, 2004, 2003, and 2002. For context, you might want to read The day after, which is about as raw as one can get about that day as I wrote that piece less than 36 hours after the first plane hit. This is the longest series I’ve ever written and I expect to continue yearly until I can no longer write.