Sixteen years ago this morning our country was changed forever. Nineteen Islamic extremists hijacked four airliners to carry out horrific and nihilistic attacks against the United States.
Those attacks killed more than 3,000 innocent people while damaging the Pentagon — the epicenter of the country’s military — and destroying the Twin Towers — the very emblems of commerce in the heart of one of the world’s great cities.
The New York Times editorial following the attack began this way: “Remember the ordinary, if you can. Remember how normal New York City seemed at sunrise yesterday, as beautiful a morning as ever dawns in early September.”
And for a long time we could not contemplate the normal. The attacks were so sudden, so dreadful that we were shaken to our core. Would we ever be able to return to the innocence of our safe routines again?
Of course in time most of us have. There has been physical and emotional healing, and that’s a testament to our strength and resolve. We go through the stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Only then do we learn to live with the loss.
It is remarkable that life for most of us has largely become ordinary again. The fact that it can be this way is a tribute to the human spirit and a brave and relentless effort by this country’s defenders to try to prevent another attack.
We know the date when our war on terror began, but there is no end in sight. The threat is constant and the enemy is often vague. Traditional modes of security are not enough. As we have witnessed here and around the world, an individual radicalized on the Internet can wreak havoc by driving a truck through a crowd or going on a shooting rampage in a nightclub.
Tragically that is part of the new normal, and these lone wolf attacks are incredibly difficult to prevent.
Think about this freshman class of college students. They were only two years old when the twin towers crashed in fiery heaps. Post 9/11 generations must be reminded on the anniversary of what evil incarnate is capable of, just as our parents and grandparents ensured that we had December 7, 1941, etched in our minds.
Every year since 2006, MSNBC has replayed NBC’s coverage of the attacks in real time. I hope they do it again this year and every year. Some have criticized it as “tragedy porn” that titillates and that it dredges up the horror for family members once again.
But I think it’s critically important that young people can witness for themselves how those events unfolded while those of us who lived through them are graphically reminded of our generation’s Pearl Harbor.
As time has passed we can again go about our ordinary routine, but on this day we are obligated to remember why that once seemed unimaginable and the events that made it so.