"Time is passing. Yet, for the United States of America, there will be no forgetting September the 11th."
President George W. Bush spoke those words, and they ring true every year. While it gets harder to remember most things as time passes, 9/11 is not among those things. If you lived through it, a heartsick feeling seared the events of that day and the weeks to follow into your brain.
One of the memories people keep is how, faced with unspeakable tragedy and profound new challenges, we came together. Leaders from Rudy Giuliani to Barack Obama have talked about that moment of unity many times. We gathered around the "national campfire," as news anchor Peter Jennings called the wall-to-wall TV coverage, and listened. It seemed like things were going to be different.
For cultural critics like the Boston Phoenix's Dan Kennedy, that was welcome news. During the '90s, we spent more time worrying about Monica Lewinsky than a terrorist named Osama bin Laden. Perhaps, Kennedy hoped, we'd finally grow up and act like adults.
"It's over," Kennedy wrote on 9/11. "The easiest, sleaziest, richest, most meaningless decade we've yet known has come to an end, buried beneath the rubble and ashes and dust of the World Trade Center."
But 13 years on, we're stuck in another frustrating decade. Leavenworth author Paul Roberts has put his finger on it all in his powerful new book, The Impulse Society: We are increasingly a nation of self-centered, instant-gratification addicts. As a result, Roberts argues, we're killing the common good.
Here on Sept. 11, 2014, our weather spirals hotter, the war on terror goes on, and our politics marinate in too much greed and cruelty. But for too many, it barely merits a shoulder-shrug: We're texting while Rome burns.
But not all of us. Many people did change after 9/11 — to become more giving, more aware of how precious our time is and more resolved not to let it happen again. That moment of unity — the shared purpose, the unconditional love of strangers we didn't know who died that day — can feel like a dream. And that's exactly what it is — an ideal we must live up to. To honor those we lost, we, as a nation, need to start doing a hell of a lot better.
No, the frivolity of the '90s did not stay buried under the wreckage that terrible day. But Kennedy was right when he concluded that on 9/11, "We entered, blindly, a terrifying new century."
To that I would add the word "together." We entered a terrifying new century together. The anniversary of 9/11 reminds us that we have to face the challenges of our times, not ignore them. ♦