The tenth anniversary of 9/11 is over and memories can be put away for at least one more year. Most are self-centered and 9/11 forced those of us old enough to pull out of our personal lives and recognize that some things are bigger than we are.
Other people’s pains, other people’s courage, and other people’s pain were more important on 9/11 than anything happening to me directly. The day and week that followed the terror attack featured two responses I remember.
Right after the Towers fell, I walked to school stunned. I had just seen the Towers a few months before 9/11 and had (once again!) chosen not to go to the top. There would be another time only now there would not be.
Sitting by the fountain outside my building were two students discussing the day and as I went in I paused to hear what young adults were saying on this horrific day. It stabbed me to the heart, because they were chattering about boredom.
They were bored on 9/11 with 9/11. A professor had spent their class discussing the events occurring in New York and they resented this waste of their academic time. It looked almost certain that their favorite televisions programs would be preempted by the news.
“Blah, blah, blah, Twin Towers,” they said.
One memory, here is another.
Later that week I talked to an Arab, Christian, American citizen. He looked at me with sorrow and said, “What do you expect? We have been dying for centuries.” A few minutes later he said, “I thought we would be safe here.”
Oddly, the students at the fountain were bored, but mad. They wanted the situation over so they could return to their real lives. It is hard to blame young adults who feared the end of the pleasant times in which they lived. They wanted to “kick some butt,” but they were bored as well.
The older man came from a family that had lived for centuries as second class citizens. He knew the good of Islam as well as the bad. He had much to say of the relative decency of Ottoman rulers, but also knew the costs of living under dominant Islam.
He wanted justice, but his attitude was more a sigh than a scream.
I have thought about these two responses for a decade now and have come to a few conclusions.
First, my older friend knew history. He knew his family history, the times of his people, and the life of his adopted nation. This gave him perspective and so he was not bored, but he also was not hasty. He was ready for centuries of conflict, because he knew that world views do not change with the clock, but with history books.
The young adults wanted something done now. Some deeds could and were done quickly, but the conflict of ideologies was going to outlast their youth. It has outlasted their youth. They are now in their thirties and we still face a war on terror.
Pleasant and moral people can also be very selfish. There is no doubt that the students were fine people in a local sort of way as was my friend, but their concerns were almost entirely related to the people around them.
Like most students, they thought globally, but lived locally. In theory, they knew more of the world than my grandparent’s generation, but what they knew impacted them less. They talked for hours about local relationships.
My grandfather knew fewer facts about Germany, but cared about the tyranny there more than the world traveled, college educated class. In part, this is because “college culture” is the same all over the world and so students never really escape their class.
They know nobody who is sensible, but rejects the values of their class.
Finally, my older friend lived with history while my students only knew it. My friend was far too young to know the Ottomans, but he felt the reality of their dead hand of history. The young adults might have known more about the Turkish Empire (though probably not), but they had no sense of history.
World War I was a series of facts to them, not a dying Tsar or influenza or rat infested muddy trenches scarring a century.
Those who don’t feel history’s lessons are doomed to repeat its pain while prattling about its facts.
This week we enter the second decade in the War on Terror and I resolve to learn from memory.
I will be patient and not demand fast solutions.
I will understand that even my enemies are created in God’s image.
I will fight for justice, but know that this may be a fight of centuries. Meanwhile, even those who oppress me may create beauty.
I will be a patriot, but one who does not win today’s fight by losing the national soul.
Most of all, I will not be bored, because I will live outside my own local concerns and my own tiny mind. Love of neighbor, country, and the world will make me greater than my petty concerns.
God help me.