Sept. 11 gained a new meaning 12 years ago

Published 9:46 am Friday, August 23, 2013

Column: Notes from Home, by David Behling

It’s still 19 days away as you read these words, but it’s just over the horizon, lurking there gruesomely, horribly: 9/11.

For half my life, it was the day we celebrated my mother’s life. After she died, it became a day to remember her life. Then, in a flash of noise and light and pain, the day became something darker.

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On that morning 12 years ago, I tried to stay focused on my documentation project while sitting in my cubicle at Midwest Wireless, listening to the crowd gathering in the nearby break room where a TV broadcast images of buildings burning, collapsing … people jumping to their deaths. For the first time I was glad my mother had not lived to see a day of family celebration turned into a day of pain for thousands of other families.

Even though it’s more than two weeks away, the buildup to this year’s anniversary has already begun. There are extra precautions because of the possibility of a fresh set of attacks by terrorists. As it gets closer, there probably will be stories about kids who lost parents and where widowed spouses have ended up.

For me, the dark turn that the Arab Spring took this summer — with radical Islamists grabbing the opportunity to impose religious restrictions on people looking for freedom — seems more dangerous the closer we inch to September.

And then there are those who reflect back on where the madness of that day has led us as a society. They ask — I ask — are we a better people now than we were before 9/11? Are we worse? What have we sacrificed in our search for security at any cost?

Even when there is no anniversary pending, images and stories of the deaths aboard those airplanes and in those buildings in New York and Washington flow out of our screens and papers and into our minds in a near constant stream. Sometimes it’s a flood — like the buildup to Sept. 11, 2011 — but it never completely dries up. It may never completely dry up, moving from real time conversations with survivors and families to the records of historians.

One reason for this continued obsession is completely understandable. The violent deaths that took place on that day, and the hatred that caused them, still feel fresh for many of us. They will probably continue to sting like a sliver that won’t come out in the flesh of America.

What a horrible choice those men made, turning airplanes into missiles filled with babies, teenagers, women and men to harm a world they hated, for it is the whole world that was the target, not just America. Families in many nations lost loved ones that day.

Why did they do it? Ideology and fanaticism are the basic explanation, but even with an intellectual understanding of how people can be manipulated to do terrible things, emotionally I’m not able to understand how those men looked at the babies on board those planes, talked to the children and adults and still did what they did. I am not able to stand in their shoes for even a minute, let alone walk in them.

What doesn’t help how we live with the memories of that day, however, is the way the event gets exploited emotionally, with some Americans focusing what happened into a desire for vengeance that overrides everything else. Some of our collective responses have been destructive: matching violence with violence. Those reactions suggest that, in many ways, the terrorists have achieved their goals.

On Sept. 12, 2001, and the weeks that followed, our nation — our society — stood at a crossroads, perhaps a whole series of crossroads, and we didn’t always choose our paths well: Treat every Muslim as a suspected terrorist! Justify torture and indefinite imprisonment without trial as protecting freedom!

That politicians in Washington are charged with protecting democracy and freedom becomes more paradoxical with every passing election. Both Democrats and Republicans manipulate our fear for political gain. They cooperate in accelerating the trend to the imperial presidency, bringing us ever closer to temporary dictators as rulers. And we citizens let taxes and Obamacare distract us while blessing their efforts to regulate our lives and invade our privacy on a regular basis.


David Rask Behling teaches at Waldorf College in Forest City, Iowa, and lives with his wife and children in Albert Lea.