10 Years Later. So much has changed.
Like a lot of people, I measure the progress of my life against important moments. Some are personal milestones and accomplishments. Others are cultural events. When it comes to how I relate and interpret the world around me, there is probably no more emotional or relevant moment than 9/11.
That event was especially impactful for me as I had just made a major life choice. I had reached personal and professional burnout. My girlfriend had just dumped me. I hated my work. Had no clue what to do, but I knew I needed to make a change. So, I abruptly quit my job of 4 years. I bought a rail pass and round trip plane ticket to Europe, planning on spending the entire month of October to roam and explore. I was going alone, and that scared the living shit out of me. Still, I figured what’s the worst that could happen? I’ll have a little adventure. Have some fun. Come back and freelance for the first time in my career. Everything will work out.
My last day of work was on a Friday, so I partied all weekend long, reveling in my newfound freedom. But, then my roommate woke me up early Tuesday morning. I walked into the living room and saw a plane fly into the World Trade Center on the tv. It was chilling. The very first thought that went through my mind: It’s about time.
What a strange thought. What a strange phrase. Quite pessimistic when you think about it, but that was exactly the phrase that appeared in my head. Honestly, I was surprised something like this hadn’t happened earlier. Why? Look at the news. Look at your history. The whole world has been—and continues to be—in perpetual conflict. The United States mainland had been insulated from the visceral impact of war for over 200 years. Think about that. 200 years. In the modern era, that is a long time without some other country (or entity) bombing you. Pearl Harbor was on some faraway island that most citizens have never seen. Subsequent wars were all in faraway lands that the majority of our citizens only experienced through video or news outlets in retrospect. This was in our back yard. This was happening in real time. And, probably for the first time in history, experienced in real time all around the world.
Of course, I wasn’t there. I didn’t know anyone who died. But I felt impacted nonetheless. I imagine you did too. You probably still do. It’s hard to comprehend, but you feel a real fear because of the combination of the insanity of a terrorist’s suicide attack, and the wicked intelligence of how it was carried out. You feel a real loss because you know these people are Americans. They are just like you. And they died. Now, in the back of your mind, you know that you too can be killed while you work at your cubicle in some corporate office. And you will be killed because you are an American. War isn’t just something that the military has to deal with. Now, average citizens have to deal with it too. And that was probably the whole point.
It’s hard to look at the last ten years and think that our country is stronger or better in that time. I don’t equate it all to 9/11. I think 9/11 is simply one facet of a world that has been changing rapidly. It was just done in our back yard and in dramatic fashion. People were harshly critical of what was perceived as the failure of our military and intellegence community to protect its citizens. Perhaps that was valid. I tend to believe that the attack didn’t shatter our country’s defenses. It simply shattered our illusion of invincibility. We live in a free and open society(at least it used to be. It is less so today). The price of living in such a society, is being vulnerable to attacks. But, the alternative is giving up our freedoms for the illusion of safety. I believe that is the road we are currently going down. Threat levels publicized that have no tangible benefit except to cover our government’s ass. New laws that, while giving our law enforcement more latitude to pursue terrorists, also give them unprecidented ability to infringe on our civil liberties. Airports that make citizens feel like prisoners rather than the paying customers that we are. All done in the name of “security.”
I don’t want to suggest that all that has happened in the last ten years is bad. Our government has kept another major attack at bay. Our businesses have kept doing what they do and our technology and interconnectivity through technology has grown rapidly. People have gone about their lives starting families and building communities. Personally, I’ve grown in ways that I could not have imagined ten years ago. I finally conquered my fear of water and learned to swim. I completed multiple triathlons and a half ironman. I’ve started and run a small business for most of the decade. I ran a non profit. I became a home owner. I’ve made lasting friendships. There have been failures along the way as well, but that’s the price of living. All of it I’m proud of. All of it I’m glad I experienced.
But I can’t help but compare my personal milestones with my country’s. And I can’t help but feel that while I’ve changed for the better, my country has not.
All that being said, I have hope for the future. There is so much ingenuity, strength and opportunity in the people of this country that I believe we can still do great things and we can still build on the greatest societal experiment of all time. We just need to work to create the environment that best helps people pursue their dreams. That is not an easy task. How we go about that task, is part of our constant internal fight. But it can be done. It takes leaders. It takes doers.
And those leaders are not going to come from where you think.