Bob Neal

The question isn’t whether we remember what happened 20 years ago this morning. We do and we will. The question is what it has done to our country. And to us.

A poll published on Wednesday in The Washington Post showed more Americans believe the attack on Sept. 11, 2001, changed America for the worse than changed it for the better. In general, liberals and moderates think we’re worse off, conservatives better.

Two decades isn’t long in a nation’s history, so analysis of the lasting effect of 9/11 may well change. Rather than to try to divine the future, let’s heed Yogi Berra’s caution about crystal-balling — “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future” — and try only to assess where we have come in 20 years as a country and as individuals.

Tough as it is to say this, Sept. 11, 2001, may be the latest time we really came together as a nation. Even most of us who did not vote for George W. Bush for president, which is to say the majority of those who voted in 2000, fell in behind his leadership.

Watching a video of him addressing Congress on Sept. 20, 2001, it occurred to me that speech was one of his two eloquences. His words soothed and reassured us that we could and would recover and that we could and would find revenge.

(W’s other eloquence, by the way, was when he told a reporter in 2009 that, “Barack Obama deserves my silence.” The reporter had asked whether Bush agreed with his self-disgracing vice-president, Dick Cheney, who was daily attacking Obama.)

Sad to say, it seems to take monstrous misfortune to unite us. The Great Depression. Pearl Harbor. 9/11. The COVID-19 pandemic, not so much. Something has happened in the past 20 years to pull us apart. Had we united against the coronavirus as we did against the Axis powers or al-Qaeda, we might have beat the virus by now.

Here’s a short list of developments that followed 9/11. Federal police power increased dramatically, with several law enforcement agencies grouped together in the Orwellian-sounding Department of Homeland Security; an agency created to go through your carry-on luggage; sweeping powers for law enforcement to demand information from and about anyone; new ID and travel documents such as the “passport card” to return from Canada.

Last but certainly not least, invasions of Afghanistan, with the worthy goal of defanging al-Qaeda, which we met, at least for a few years, and of Iraq for no truthful reason. Never did we have the common sense, as Vermont Sen. George Aiken, a Republican, said of Vietnam, to “Declare victory and leave.” Instead, under four presidents we accepted  defeat before finally leaving. And at a cost of some $6 trillion and 7,000 American lives.

That money, spent on rebuilding projects, could have obviated President Joe Biden’s infrastructure bill. And those lives, left intact, could have saved thousands of families lifelong grief and given us an even stronger workforce to rebuild the infrastructure.

Whatever 9/11 did to our nation, it left an indelible mark on all of us as individuals, too.

Sept. 11 may have ended the innocence of our sons, aged 29 and 25 then. When I got home that day from the Brunswick downtown farmers market, my wife told me each son had called from Portland, each worried about what was happening to America and each expressing fear for himself and our family.

They had been tots when the U.S. evacuated Saigon, teenagers when we invaded Kuwait to stop the madman Saddam, so it was a new reality that someone wanted to hurt us, and that frightened both sons.

Neither Marilyn nor I knew how to comfort them. Still, we tried. I recall telling them that in Maine we were safer than people in places such as New York. That didn’t help. One son reminded me that the leader of the murderers had stayed the night before in Portland, then flown to Boston to begin the terror.

Both sons had to come to grips with the reality that any quotidian act, such as boarding a plane, might be one’s last. That’s a tough reality for someone growing up in rural Maine.

The Rev. Marcia Charles called a prayer service at the New Sharon Congregational Church. A few of us showed up. Her words to us were more reassuring than my words to my sons had been. She urged us to pray that God guide our leaders in the path of wisdom.

A day or two later, New Sharon held an outdoor vigil in the heart of what used to be our downtown, behind the Sandy River Store. A few dozen of us stood in a circle, holding hands, singing patriotic songs and hymns and praying and speaking. It comforted us for the time being, but we had to return home to watch the terror repeated endlessly on TV.

Marilyn and I, aged 61 and 58 then, were tiptoeing into old age and adopting the attitude of “old fahts” everywhere that everything is worse than it used to be. That may be just a way to deal with unwanted change. But each of us had a foreboding that our world had changed in ways we couldn’t predict.

Maybe this time, the old fahts got it right.

Bob Neal agrees with those who wrote during the past week that it’s not what al-Qaeda did to us on 9/11 that has hurt America, it’s what we did in response to al-Qaeda. Neal can be reached at [email protected]


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