What result do you want to create? What will you do to make that result happen? My boss asks questions like these when he runs leadership seminars. As we mark the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, we ought to ask ourselves the same questions. We will respond to the attacks’ troubling legacy in many ways. Some voices will loudly proclaim America’s greatness; a few of these will say that those who do not talk as they do are not patriots. Many of us will remember the surprise, shock, anger and disbelief we felt as we heard the news, saw the images and sat to watch. That day, the world became a scary place. The attacks became something we talked about late at night, a somber subject we followed until someone else appeared and broke the tension.
Some people remember Sept. 12, 2001 as a day when Americans rededicated themselves to their communities, forged new bonds of friendship and, for a little while, treated each other with kindness. That rosy vision ignores the dread, paranoia and anger that seeped into our public discourse over time. We didn’t understand what the attack meant for several weeks. A few of us didn’t even hear about the attacks until the day after. I didn’t.
On the night of Sept. 11, my seventh-grade classmate told me that something bad had happened in New York, but he wasn’t allowed to say what. My class had gone on a retreat to a summer camp, and few of us had phones. At breakfast the next morning, our school counselor broke the news: Planes had hit the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. I raised my hand to ask if they were passenger planes and whether it had been an accident. Waiting for the bus that afternoon I remembered visiting the towers the August before. It had been so foggy that all I could see was the sidewalk 110 stories below.
When my mother told me that the towers had fallen, my stomach sank. I ran to the TV. CNN was playing the grainy amateur video of the second impact – the video they don’t show any more. NBC had a satellite photo of the cancerous debris plume. Every now and then they showed silent footage of people running from the grey ash cloud that consumed the streets as a tower fell. The clip ended with cars and people caked with powder struggling through what looked like a disaster movie scene.
The story goes that on Sept. 12, Americans were united. We certainly were scared. Some of us were scared together. Where have we gone since? To candlelight vigils. To peace protests. If people were here on a visa, they registered with the FBI. Our country went to war, twice: Eventually our friends went, too. We chose an African American man to be our president. The stock market fell, then rose, then fell again. Our army surged, twice. Many of us lost our jobs, our homes or both. This anniversary will lead most of us to reflect on what has happened. It’s also a chance to think about what comes next.
What do we want America to look like 10 years from now? Boy Scouts repeat a motto that includes the words, “I will do my best to do my duty to God and my country.” I hope 10 years from now more Americans will be asking themselves how they can best do their duty to their country. But I don’t want America to be a place where the only answer to that question is military or government service. Our country is more than the institutions of national defense, and it is bigger than its government. Our country is our neighbors. It is our towns, our student organizations, our places of worship, our workplaces and our friends. Our country is our families. I hope that 10 years from now we think more often about the people around us, do more to welcome those who have come here dreaming of the day when they, too, will be officially recognized as Americans, and I hope that we spend more of our time helping each other. What do you want America to be 10 years from now?
Seth Soderborg is an LSA senior.