Fifteen years after 9/11, still counting the cost

There’s a hole in the world tonight

There’s a cloud of fear and sorrow

There’s a hole in the world tonight

Don’t let there be a hole in the world tomorrow.

— The Eagles

Fifteen years ago this day, Americans endured a shared experience of shock, horror, grief, anger, resolve, sorrowful unity and fierce national pride.

Ordinary Americans summoned superhuman reserves of strength and courage. First responders died by the dozens, in the act of saving fellow Americans by the thousands. Ordinary working people risked their lives, and many lost them, to save other Americans they didn’t even know. A retired colonel, Fort Benning alum and Vietnam vet named Rick Rescorla was working as a security chief for Morgan Stanley in the World Trade Center; he alone is credited with saving more Americans that day than all the others who died at the hands of murderous fanatics.

Rick Rescorla survived the bloody battle of Ia Drang; his body was never recovered from the rubble of the Twin Towers.

Fifteen years later, “9/11” has become more a symbol than a terrible and all too real event in American history. What exactly it’s a symbol of is something Americans still debate, and with ever-increasing division and bitterness. The aftermath of that horrifying, inspiring and unifying day seems to have stood on its head the conventional wisdom that nothing unites a people like a common enemy.

Fifteen years later, we can’t even agree who the enemy is.

Fifteen years later, we define what it means to be American mostly at the expense of other Americans. Americans accuse fellow Americans of not being tolerant enough, and are derided by those other Americans for not being militant enough. Candidates for political office tell us a win for their opponents would be a victory for the enemies of America, and the opponents they’re talking about are Americans. The rhetoric of “taking back” America has become commonplace political currency, and the people we’re told America needs “taking back” from are Americans.

Fifteen years later, there’s still a hole in the world. We’ve clung to the fear and forgotten the shared sorrow.

Fifteen years later, Americans have reassessed — most of us gradually and subliminally rather than consciously — the core values of freedom and security. Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson’s 1949 warning that the Constitution must not become a “suicide pact” is weighed against Benjamin Franklin’s admonition that those who trade essential liberty for temporary security deserve neither; and where between those two principles the proper balance is to be found is something else we argue about. But we now routinely accept degrees of surveillance, intrusion and inconvenience we would have refused to tolerate a decade and a half ago.

Fifteen years later, the “military-industrial complex” President Dwight D. Eisenhower warned Americans about at the height of the Cold War has grown bigger, richer, stronger, more complex, more secret and more entrenched in the terror war.

The heroes of Sept. 11, 2001, and the heroes who have defended us in the years since, many at the cost of their lives, have exemplified a self-sacrificing valor beyond the power of language to describe. Yet too few of us have shared in any sacrifice at all, and too many of us have found it too easy not to think about theirs.

Fifteen years ago today a former Fort Benning Ranger, Army Maj. Dwayne Williams, died at his new post when terrorists crashed a commercial jet into the Pentagon. His younger brother Roy, a Birmingham journalist and former Ledger-Enquirer staff writer, later wrote movingly of that loss, and of terrorist hatred’s failure “to break that fabric of love of God and country that make America the greatest nation on earth.”

Fifteen years later, that fabric is frayed but still intact. The most meaningful thing this somber anniversary can accomplish is to inspire us, now and for the future, to rise above the fear and remember the sorrow of shared humanness. Only by acknowledging the full, flawed, frail, noble humanity of our fellow Americans, dead and living, can we ever truly heal that hole in the world.

(A shorter version of this editorial was first published Sept. 11, 2011.)