When I think of 9/11, my memories come in a jumble. It’s like watching a trailer of a movie I’ve already seen. There was the shock of watching the second plane impact the World Trade Center’s south tower and the instant realization we were under attack. Then there’s smoke billowing from the Pentagon and a rush of rumors and reports that made us feel, for hours on end, that perhaps the attack was even worse and more widespread than it actually turned out to be.
The memories keep coming. There’s Congress singing “God Bless America” on the Capitol steps. There’s George W. Bush’s bullhorn moment at the rubble of the World Trade Center, and his first pitch at the World Series. It’s hard to even begin to describe the sense of national unity and purpose that arose instantly and spontaneously.
I can remember thinking, for a time, that this day was my generation’s Pearl Harbor, and this was my generation’s war. I felt deep regret that I was too old to join and do my part (little did I know I’d drag my even-older carcass through an officer basic course five years later—37 is not the ideal age to learn the low crawl.)
But it wasn’t Pearl Harbor, not even close. We should mainly be thankful (after all, Pearl Harbor marked the beginning of a far more deadly war), but the fact that it wasn’t Pearl Harbor is also the reason why that sense of national unity was always going to dissolve, quickly. It was so transient that it feels like a dream.