Monday, October 10, 2011

On the American Landscape

Reflections on September 11, 2001

I spent a wonderfully peaceful day house-sitting in the Richmond Hills on September 10th, 2001. I worked on some writing projects in the morning and went for a long run that afternoon in the hills above the Bay, watched the sunset, listened to crickets, talked to some people walking their dogs.

I slept late the next day and found out from the carpenters working outside that something terrible had happened back east and I had better turn on the television.

We all have our memories of that day. Since I was by myself that day, I probably paid more attention to the television than most.

One of the commentators that day solemnly and grandiloquently claimed, as they do on such occasions, that the terrorist attacks had changed the landscape of America.

The events certainly changed the skyline of New York City. They took American policy in a new direction towards foreign intervention. History will judge how successfully. There is also a field in rural Pennsylvania that is changed forever into a site for grieving the deaths and honoring the heroism of the passengers who charged the cockpit of Flight 93.

Some three thousand people lost their lives, including a number of people from foreign countries and many religious faiths, including Muslims. The world economy took a multi-trillion dollar hit. We are still feeling the shock waves.

For Osama bin Laden and friends, it was unquestionably a good day’s work.

Did it change the landscape of America?


President Dwight David Eisenhower changed the landscape of America when he signed the Interstate Highway Act of 1956 into law. That act, the largest public works program in history, forever changed the face of America, connecting this vast land, creating the suburbs, changing where we lived and how we got to work.

Instead of the twin towers, we’ll have a park and a new skyscraper. The Pentagon, a massive brute of a building, was repaired and functioning normally within a year. The memorial park there was dedicated in 2008.

The psychological and financial impact has been far greater, but even so, the financial shenanigans that led to the meltdown in 2008 have hurt America far more. In terms of our daily lives, the only long-term impact of that terrible day is the airport security regimen that was proposed and should have been adopted in the late 90s.

No terrorist act can hurt America as much as we are now hurting ourselves with our bitter and recriminatory politics. As for those killed ten years ago, their loved ones bear a grief too deep for words. All we can do as a nation is honor their memory and take steps to make sure this sort of attack will not happen again. In time, as Robert Kennedy said on the night of Martin Luther King’s assassination - quoting Aeschylus -

“In our sleep, the pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart; and in our despair, against our will, comes wisdom by the awful grace of God.”