At the time, I recall thinking about how crystal clear the sky was in Philadelphia on that brisk Tuesday morning in September. There was not a cloud in the sky, and the weather alone made September 11, 2001 the kind of day that you look up, smile, and thank God for being so blessed as to draw breath.
Searching over the past few days for a tangible way to describe the fundamental change in our nation that happened that morning, I kept coming back to the weather as I stared up at cloudless, “Carolina Blue” skies here in the Lowcountry. It dawned on me that there was an innocence in our nation that was lost ten years ago today. In New York City and Washington, the skies were clear and that innocence continued, until both were clouded and shattered by the smoke and ash that rose to the heavens following each attack.
Last night, MSNBC was broadcasting its coverage from the morning of September 11, 2001. Neither my wife nor I could look away, and hearing the voices of Matt Lauer, Katie Couric and Andrea Mitchell brought back the confusion and emotion from that day, when I distinctly recall sitting on a coffee table only feet from my roommate’s television, flipping back and forth between channels in complete silence.
Watching that coverage last night, in retrospect it is absolutely astounding how little we knew, and how much that innocence lost permeated every nook and cranny of our nation’s psyche.
During that coverage, I heard someone say that we should not “jump to the conclusion that it was an act of terrorism,” that it very well could have been “some sort of suicide pack among pilots that had nothing to do with politics.” It was eerie hearing Lauer from NBC and Fox News anchor Jon Scott posit for the very first time that Osama bin Laden was among the short list of “suspects” behind the attacks.
It is not as though the world was devoid of radical Islamic terrorism before September 11, 2001. Hardly. What happened that morning is that every single man, woman and child in this great nation were made acutely aware of the troubles that we have been so insulated from in years past. What happened that morning is that every single man, woman and child in America was made acutely aware that the world had changed to the point that our oceans no longer provided the security that they once had, and that the doctrine of mutually assured destruction no longer applied, when our adversaries were willing to sacrifice themselves to kill innocents.
We were so naive. And, from the very moment that we first learned the lessons of September 11, 2001, we have opened our eyes.
Even then, though, our response and our resolve were being strengthened and steeled. The two towers had not yet fallen, and one commentator on MSNBC reinforced the words of President George W. Bush in that Sarasota, Florida classroom, saying that the attacks on New York and Washington required “a response from the United States, and the United States must be willing to pay the price” for that response.
And pay the price, we have. Brave servicemen and servicewomen have spilled blood and paid the ultimate sacrifice overseas. Families of those fallen have paid the same here at home. And, to a lesser level, all of us have seen changes in our daily lives.
Ten years later, and the names of those lost still fall on astounded ears. The bells tolled at the moments when each plane hit in New York Washington and Pennsylvania, as well as the moments when the two towers fell, still take the breath from my chest. The realities of the Global War on Terror that we still face are ever-present.
Much has changed, however. The memorials in Washington, New York and Shanksville are taking shape and nearing completion. Osama bin Laden is dead. Little boys and girls who lost everything that day have grown into strong young men and women. And, when I look outside here in the Carolinas, I see those same crystal clear blue skies that I saw in Philadelphia on that day. We are rebuilding. We are recovering. And we are remembering.
And we always will. We may have lost our innocence that morning, but we found our identity.