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The most vivid 9/11 impression occurred for me a month later and about 40 miles north of the Pentagon. As my Frederick, Maryland, Marine Reserve unit prepared to muster for drill, its first since the terrorist attack, faces not seen in months, even years, reappeared in the unpaved parking lot. The Ghosts of Marines Past sought readmittance. Clearly, they hadn’t signed up for the GI Bill. The unit rebuffed their attempts to rejoin. An exception was a government attorney whose World Trade Center office containing several suits, diplomas, but not, thankfully, him, had been obliterated. His witness at Ground Zero, and subsequent service in Iraq, put him in the focal points of the war-on-terrorism decade. Like the firemen who rushed up the stairs of the World Trade Center when common sense propelled everyone else to rush down, these Marines—embodying the adage “once a Marine, always a Marine”—pursued danger.
September 11th showed the worst of humanity. It also showed the best.
The strength of actual memory is that everyone has a different one of the same event. The hundreds of millions of Americans who lived through 9/11 possess hundreds of millions of stories about it. The weakness of virtual memory is that it imposes the same recollections on everyone through mass media. For those who didn’t live through it, the spectacular imagery of planes crashing into the towers or the grisly visuals of victims ending their suffering through death leaps will represent 9/11. But there is more to the story. As the distance grows between us and our past, our past becomes less personal. I guess you had to be there.
Events ensure that 9/11 will never be the same again. Through the filter of a decade, we see the worst terrorist attack in history as history. Instead of an immediate act of horrible evil to be avenged or human loss to be mourned, it becomes causal agent, demarcation point, and metaphor. The day is seen as the end of several decades of peace and prosperity and the beginning of a decade (or more) of war and stagnation. Whereas we might have marveled at the world’s lone superpower humbled by nineteen box-cutter-wielding fanatics, we now see a teetering superpower whose functioning symbols of military and financial power crushed by jet-bomb proved a harbinger of things to come. A moment of national unity, in light of the impeachment before and the harsh rhetoric after, transforms into an outlier within a period of intense political division. September 11th has evolved.
Our memory of 9/11 isn’t what it used to be. Ten years hence it won’t be what it is.
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