Under Siege: What We Lost and What We Gained on 9/11

(A column I wrote in the immediate aftermath of September 11, 2001....)

911-copPolice squad cars flanked the Daley Center.  In the barricaded streets there were more guys in blue shirts than you'd see in a prison yard. It occurred to me that we've lost something.

We have lost that carefree feeling that we’ve had in this country pretty much since it was founded of being able to go through the day like somnambulists, expecting no upheavals and nothing spectacular, no excess of emotion being expended anywhere.

We have lost the ability to ignore our surroundings as we trudge to work, oblivious to the eyes of passing strangers and unattended briefcases on trains. We have lost the sensation of putting ourselves on autopilot and being carried through the day on great yawning, repetitive waves of ennui.

We have gotten our wake-up call, and we’ve responded admirably in most cases.

We have lost more than 3,000 humans, but we have gained something back of our humanity.

People reached out last week to help strangers. Others have called people they haven’t called or heard from in years to check and ask how things were going. People have become tuned in to the brevity of their own lives and the meaninglessness of some of their daily routines, and have made an effort to connect with those things that have real, human value. People have wept inconsolably at the stories of ill-fated strangers who were simply going about the business of their lives one morning and found themselves in an inferno with no way out.

People have gotten their resolve back, found strength in unity, and made millionaires of flag makers. People who have not been stirred much by the warm embers of patriotism they have carried around like pocket hand warmers for so long have felt their very souls seared and tempered by unexpected glowing bonfires of pride. And they get kindled every day by reports of other horrific plots that have been foiled or have not yet been carried out – such as the discovery of some Taliban soldiers taking a sudden interest in flying crop dusting planes, asking flight training instructors how big a payload they could carry and how fast they could travel.

One such plane crashing into the Sears Tower and releasing a belly-load of anthrax could kill millions within a few days. It’s enough to make you wonder about the real estate market in the West Loop, where all those lofts are being hollowed out of the guts of former factories and sweatshops. With this type of warfare, the buildings would remain intact, but the people would fall as surely as the ones in the notorious Nazi cyanide shower rooms.

The Nazis worked hard to devise plans of mass destruction of human beings, and awarded engineers with praise and payments for their innovations. Poison proved inexpensive and effective. It will probably be used again to commit crimes against humanity.

History books tell us that what Franklin Roosevelt felt when he heard the news of Pearl Harbor was an overwhelming sense of relief because he knew he could act and have the support of the populace behind him.
We are all on alert now.

We have lost a sense of our basic, national freedom, which has made us all realize how precious it is. We’ve gained knowledge of how much it is worth fighting for.

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