[[ This Also Appears in Today’s Chicago Tribune ]]
To some of us, 9/11 was the second shoe. The first had dropped almost exactly 70 years earlier. As a boy I had experienced the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941; now this on New York City in 2001. In the first, our proud fleet had been destroyed; in the second, our proud Towers. The enemies were getting closer. Is there some kind of connection?
Indeed there is. In 1941 the boy had suddenly learned his nation had enemies. What, America…? Oh yes. Seventy years later in 2001 the man clearly realized America had many enemies. All those things about his country that made him proud, made others angry. Angry that what we had and what we took in the world left less for them. And among them there would always be some fierce avengers.
During those 70 years the boy became an educator. US History was my field, and I remember trying to convey what was so unique about the United States. The first country that had been created rather than simply happened. Instead of one strain of humanity gradually evolving into a nation, we were many strains that hurried up the process by simply declaring ourselves free of any outside rule. Fortunately we had two great ocean walls behind which to remain safe from most outside interference.
However, by the 20th C those walls were no longer invulnerable. Ships, planes and missiles ended all that. By the 21st C television, the Internet, and social media made us even more vulnerable. Now those angry faces pressed against the candy store window that was America were capable of giving life to their anger. Turning their rage into retaliation.
On September 10, the world seemed to be made up of just two populations: Americans and those who wanted to be Americans. By September 12 there was serious reason to doubt that old patriotic scenario. My extended family lost members in the war that followed December 7; and some already in the war that has followed September 11. If I were still in the classroom today, I think I would ask my students about their admirable passion for peace and doing-their-thing. But I would also ask them is there room that also allows for struggle and following-the-flag.
Performing somewhere between these extremes — the passion for peace and the need for struggle — may be how best we can respond as a nation on this anniversary.
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