So I just looked up at the clock, here in this quiet office, and it reads 9:08 a.m. Outside the windows, the sky is a long swatch of gray flannel. There is one clear drop of water on the glass, two, three, a dozen now. It's starting to rain out there on this morning thick with ache and meaning and endless remembrance.
Another September 11, come 'round again.
Another September 11, and I am standing in our kitchen, looking across the family room. The television is on. The room is flooded with brilliant sunlight. It's 14 years and five minutes ago, and an airliner has just hit the south tower of the World Trade Center. An ugly bloom of black smoke and orange flame blossoms around the building's upper reaches, and there is the twinkle of shattered glass and metal in the clear sunlit air.
"What th--?" I say, my wife says, the refrigerator repairman working on our cranky icemaker says.
We all say.
We all know, in that moment, that this is no accident, that America is under attack in a manner more intimate than any since Pearl Harbor 60 years before. That everything we were and are and will be has just been neatly demarked in flame and smoke and the blood of innocents.
From now on, there will be what America was before 9:03 a.m. on 9/11/01, and there will be what America will become afterward. And one will resemble the other only in the most rudimentary sense.
What I remember of that moment, of that day, I have written about before in this space. As we stood in our kitchen watching the towers burn, the phone rang. It was the editor of the Journal Gazette, Craig Klugman. He wanted me to do the local reaction story. I hung up, got dressed, got in my car and started to drive, winding up in Auburn, and then at Glenbrook, and then at IPFW, and finally at Trinity English Lutheran Church downtown.
Somehow I got a story out of it. Somehow I put the enormity of it all in a box and sealed the lid and didn't let it out until two days later, when I sat at the kitchen table looking at the photo that since has become known as the Falling Man, and then got up and turned off the TV.
Enough was enough. Enough had become too much.
So much has happened since then, and so much of it does no credit to us as a nation. What pulled us together in the immediate aftermath of 9:03 a.m. on 9/11/01 has pulled us apart in ways we couldn't have imagined at the time. A nation that once feared nothing fears everything now, for reasons that elude rational thought. Fourteen years down the road from that sun-washed September morning, there are still real terrorists and real threats out there. But we have so conflated them with imaginary threats that we see terrorists everywhere now, even in the White House. And we too often say and do things in response that shame everything for which we stand.
Fourteen years along, on this side of that great 9:03 a.m. divide, political figures openly sew distrust and xenophobia and suspicion of some imaginary Other in ways they never would have dreamed on the other side of that divide. And they are applauded for it by a frightened, deluded populace that used to recognize demagogues when it saw them, and that overwhelmingly rejected them.
Now they embrace them. Now they cheer their xenophobia and outright bigotry, and disdain common decency as "political correctness." The louder the mouth, the less coherent the message, the more a significant portion of America seems to love it these days.
Hardly the image we projected as a nation in the wake of 9:03 a.m. 9/11/01. Hardly the image we should ever want to project.
It was a popular meme, in those early days after this day 14 years ago, that if we went into a shell -- if we stopped doing what Americans do every day of their American lives -- then, well, the terrorists win. Because what they hated most about us is what we do do every day of our American lives.
That wasn't entirely accurate. But it was accurate enough.
Now look at us: Fearful, hateful, unable to accept that we are all part of a greater whole, and that we are all driven by the same basic human impulses. The determination to do anything -- anything -- to keep our families safe from harm and deprivation. The yearning to be accorded basic rights without someone claiming, falsely, that doing so somehow abridges theirs. The desire to be treated fairly without being called names or told to just suck it up and get over it.
I hear all this every day when I turn on my TV, or check the news feed on my laptop. And I think about how different it was in those minutes and hours and days after 9:03 a.m. 9/11/01. Then I think about that old half-truism, the one that says if we stop doing what Americans do (or should be doing), the terrorists win.
Well. Look around. Tell me they're not winning now.