The terror attacks of September 11, 2001, like all sudden and shocking instances of horrific loss, created individual and collective trauma, anger, outrage and grief, and an array of other emotions and responses.
The nation reeled in shock as buildings tumbled and burned, as we watched families of civilians and emergency responders realize their loved ones were never again coming home, the victim of a hideous plot to grievously wound our nation.
The traumas, griefs and painful emotions were handled different ways: unifying as communities and as a nation, individual introspection and mourning, memorializing those lost and paying homage to the heroes.
Sweeping foreign and domestic changes stemmed at least in part from the great well of emotion, with military and foreign policy priorities and objections changing immediately (including war campaigns in the Middle East), and domestic policy shifted with the Patriot Act and other mechanisms of scrutiny of possible threats from within.
“No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear,” wrote C.S. Lewis in his book about his experience mourning the death of his wife, and after 9/11, fear felt pervasive too.
A generation later and that fear, and elements of the other raw emotions remain, some embers held close and frequently stoked purposefully or by circumstance, others packed away deeply that lurch to the light of consciousness during moments of vulnerability in other times of distress.
Like any infection or wound that doesn’t fully heal, the pain and hurt continues to lurk beneath the surface and threaten a healthy societal balance.
Here we are, two decades later, still trying to unpack and process the emotions of the murder of so many innocents and heroes.
And in the midst of that ongoing struggle, we as a nation are locked in mortal confrontations with other menaces: hurricanes and wildfires, aspiring international hegemonies, domestic political polarization and pandemic disease, to say nothing of ongoing threats from the types of enemies who perpetrated the 9/11 attack.
To add injury to injury, our society just watched Afghanistan, one of the outlets for our outrage and frustration in the aftermath of 9/11 (regardless of whether or not it made anything ‘better’), turn into a massive defeat and refutation at gunpoint of American intentions.
The physical danger posed by the COVID outbreak persists, and with the growing radioactivity created by debates over lockdowns, vaccines, masks and passports.
We’re not done, and probably won’t ever be done, with dealing with the damage done on 9/11, but we must address it by drawing close together as communities and a nation and realizing our similarities outweigh our differences, and that while we don’t always have to agree, that we need each other.
The horror of 9/11 can be too painful to remember, but it is too costly and injurious to try to ignore and remain divided.
And we should certainly never be willing to forget.