Sunday, September 11, 2011

A Day For Remembering

As an amateur genealogist, dates are vital to my research. I want do do more than collect vital records; I want to understand my ancestors’ lives by determining the historical context in which they lived: the customs of their societies; the economic and ecology of the places they lived; the wars and the diseases which may have cut their lives short; the various weather events and other natural catastrophes which they endured. 

But I’m also aware that I am not immune to these same kinds of events; I also am living in a particular place in a particular time, and someday my descendants may want to understand my life in the same manner. So today I want to look at the dates which have shaped my life, and the lives of my contemporaries who are citizens or residents of the United States of America at the beginning of the second decade of the 21st century of the Common Era.

As with all human generations, some dates stay with us forever: but for Americans the significant dates are not only those of births, marriages, and deaths, but also the dates on which we lost at least some of our innocence and realized that the world had changed, that our country was not invulnerable. Our most senior citizens remember exactly where they were and what they were doing on December 7, 1941, when they heard that Pearl Harbor had been attacked. Many of us remember exactly where we were and what we were doing on November 22, 1963, the day President Kennedy was assassinated. 

There have been so many tragic events since then that even if we have forgotten the exact dates, the disasters themselves, and the images we saw on TV and in the newspapers, have been seared into our memories: the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and of Senator Robert F. Kennedy in 1968; the terrorist murder of eleven Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics in 1972; the loss of the Space Shuttle Challenger  in 1986; the bombing of the Murrah Building in Oklahoma City in 1995; and so many other terrorist attacks that they tend to blur together in our memories.

But one event stands out in our collective memories: the day the world changed again in a catastrophic manner. I am writing this on September 11, 2011, the tenth anniversary of a day which none of us who lived through it can ever forget. 

Living on the West Coast, and not being a habitual watcher of daytime TV, I might not have learned what happened until much later. My husband was in Washington, DC, that day, for a business meeting which included officials of the Department of Defense. Fortunately, the meeting was not in the Pentagon itself but on an upper floor of an office building some 6 blocks or so south of the Pentagon, in an office facing north. Not all the scheduled participants had arrived, so he and others were standing at the window, discussing the disastrous news from New York City. They had a clear view when the third airliner came in low and crashed into the Pentagon. To this day, my husband does not talk about the horrors of what he saw. He did, however, immediately realize that when I heard about the Pentagon I would fear that he was one of the casualties; he somehow found a pay phone that was still working and called to tell me what had happened and assure me that he was unharmed.

Like everyone else, I spent the next several days watching the TV. I saw the Twin Towers collapse over and over again, as if the ending would be different the next time. One of my husband’s cousins had been working in an office on one of the upper floors of the Twin Towers; she was not among the survivors. Another cousin’s office was only six blocks from the Twin Towers; the office required serious cleanup efforts, including the replacement of broken windows, but fortunately no one was seriously injured. One of my husband’s colleagues was on the airplane whose passengers revolted against the terrorists and brought the plane down in rural Pennsylvania, sacrificing their own lives then to prevent the terrorists from destroying another target and killing others. 

My husband, like thousands of others, was trapped in Washington for nearly a week because every airport in the country was closed down. Meanwhile, I prayed, and wept, and thanked God that our eldest child had been given a medical disability discharge from the military only a few months before and would not be part of the active fighting to come.

We mounted a flagpole on the front of our house, and the American flag has been flying there ever since. We’ve had to replace the mounting hardware and the pole once or twice, and the flag itself has been replaced several times. I swore when we first put it up that that flag would be flying until Bin Laden was himself flying in the wind with a noose around his neck. 

Well, Bin Laden himself is finally gone, but Al Queda isn’t, so that flag will continue to fly in our yard as long as the terrorist threats continue to exist. If I die of extreme old age, that flag may still be flying. 

Violence has been part of human existence as far back as history and science have taken us. The trouble is, one generation may be convinced that violence is wrong, but anyone who has watched toddlers play together can see that teaching genuine negotiation, compromise, and peaceful settlement of disputes has to be a process renewed with every subsequent generation.

I find it tragic that American politics has become so polarized. As the poet William Butler Yeats put it in his poem “The Second Coming”: “Things fall apart; the center cannot hold . . . The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.”

I remember when our political parties actually negotiated with one another in order to satisfy the needs of all the people who lived in our country. I remember when “compromise” was not a dirty word and basic civility was the norm between political opponents. I remember when Senators and Representatives normally answered to all the people of their state or district rather than solely to extremists of their own party. I remember when political parties did not insist that their own party’s events were more important that what the President had to say to the country as a whole.

I also remember my ancestors, many of whom faced equally horrific circumstances and equally polarized politics. And that gives me hope. They achieved not only Darwinian success by surviving long enough to pass their genes to the next generation, but also passed on their cultures, ideals, and inner strength which shaped not only me but many others who were or are their descendants. 

We are all the descendants of survivors. We have it in us to change the future by what we do now. If we choose to concentrate only on our own personal interests, disaster may be the inheritance of our descendants, but if we all choose to pull together for the common good, we may make the world a better and a safer place for the generations to come. 

The choice is in our hands.

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