It may always be impossible for Americans in my generation to say today’s date – September 11 – and not think back to the tragedy, the metal and fire and blood, of the 2001 version.
It’s been 13 years and we’re still not really past it.
Maybe we’re beyond it in an emotional sense (though maybe not), but we’re certainly not in the sense of our identity as a people. As a country, we may never be.
Honestly, I haven’t thought about the attack in a long time (for the first few years, it seemed talk of 9/11 was inescapable from day to day). I hadn’t realized the anniversary was once again upon us. But then someone asked me if I had plans Thursday.
“What’s the date?” I asked.
She looked at her phone, looked back at me, not a glint in her eye but a kind of shiver in her voice. “September 11,” she said, as though wondering if she should gasp after.
I sort of forgot about it again. Then I looked at the calendar yesterday, making plans for today, and there it was in bold Times New Roman, serifed and menacing – September 11.
I don’t know about you, but that’s the way I see that formulation of letters and numbers now. “September 11” and “9/11” — once impermanent, fluid, varied in significance from year to year and person to person — now have permanent meaning. A fixed association. Like every year you come across that square on the calendar and you feel awkward writing anything in it. Because how can you jot “Go to the hardware store” or “Lead group” or “Meeting with John” in that box and not see it as a bit out of place.
Even all these years later – though it’s not at the forefront of our minds – this day in September is an isolated cloud in otherwise blue skies. Like you come to it and you think, “Oh, yeah, it’s this day again. Has it already been so long?”
I imagine people who have birthdays or anniversaries today feel a bit deprived, a bit overshadowed. Because when someone says, “When’s your birthday?” and you say, “September 11,” the other person is bound to think, “Now where have I heard that date before?” And it won’t take long to make the connection. Maybe something will be said, maybe nothing, but it’ll be in your mind: that’s the day the world changed.
And it really did.
It changed in the fiery contortion of steel meeting steel. In the combustion of fuel and office paper. In the fuming of a naked green field under a barefaced blue sky.
And to think, we’re still living in the shadow of that day. Another September 11, and we’re still dropping bombs on terrorists in the Middle East. We’re still “fighting,” “retaliating,” “defending.” We’re still eyeing like hawks those who “threaten Americans.” And the President is forced into the position of making decisions and speeches about “war in the Middle East,” a once-vague but now so monolithic phrase. It’s a new president, and a new war, and a new enemy, but none of it feels that new, does it? It feels in some ways like it’s still October, 2001, and we’re still hunting while rebuilding. The terms “Islamic terrorism” and “hijacking” and “jihad” are household words now, with gravity and a sort of rhetorical terror of their own, just like the phrase that started it all, “September 11.”
This is just a normal day, but not really. It’s not like other days. It can’t be.
We can’t skip from September 10 to September 12. Time doesn’t work that way. Neither do we. We are unable to forget.
Because smoke is still rising. Maybe not in New York or Virginia or Pennsylvania, but across the ocean. In other blue skies. And inside us. Though we are able to forget most of the year, smoke still plumes on this day. Not necessarily smoke of vengeance or hate or even woe. But the smoke of remembrance.
And there’s an awkward heat in remembering. Because on September 11, even now in 2014, the ashes we thought might finally be dead are turned over, prodded, and made to smolder once again.