We have carried the torch. We have rebuilt. And we have done what we said we never would: we have forgotten.
Today, on the 19th anniversary of the worst terrorist attack in American history, the internet and news channels will be filled with retrospectives on the day we all watched in horror as multiple attacks on American soil played out simultaneously – the most noteworthy of which were the images of full sized passenger planes piercing the twin towers of the World Trade Center in lower Manhattan. The flames rose. People jumped to escape the inferno. And then, the unthinkable, as the towers fell, one by one, collapsing from their soaring heights above the world’s most famous skyline into a dark, nightmarish cloud of smoke and debris, taking the lives of all those who remained within them.
Nearly 3,000 Americans died in the attacks on that day. And the mantra that sprang up like a chorus: “Never forget,” seemed almost superfluous. Who could ever forget what they saw? Who could ever forget the shattering of our sense of safety, security, and normalcy, or the realization that our seemingly invincible nation was in fact terribly vulnerable. For those who lost friends, co-workers, or family, how could the gaping hole left by their loss ever be forgotten?
I saw one of my social media friends tweet something yesterday – a friend who is from New York, and was working in the city the day the towers fell. It really resonated with me:
It’s hard to believe how long it’s really been. Our oldest daughter just turned 23, and yet she’s too young to have any memory of the events of that day. My thoughts then turned immediately to the young men and women who have been out rioting, looting, and burning our cities for the past few months. Most of them have no actual memory of the event either – or perhaps more importantly, what came after.
The thing that news reels of the planes flying into the towers or smoke billowing out of the Pentagon can’t convey to someone who didn’t live through every excruciating moment of that day is how we felt, and how it changed us.
I wrote about this a few years ago. About the strange, surreal feeling of how normal the day otherwise seemed to be. The clear, cloudless, blue sky. The beautiful weather. Sitting with a friend in his car, eating burritos for lunch, unable to process what we knew was happening, or even to know what to say.
At the time, I was a New Yorker living in Phoenix for the first time, having just graduated from college. I had quit the go-nowhere job I’d first gotten after the move — a job where I had unknowingly met my future wife — and to be honest, my relationship with her at the time seemed to be going nowhere, too. Out of frustration and homesickness, I had made a deal with God that if I didn’t get the new job I’d applied for, I was going to take that as a sign that I needed to leave Arizona and go home to start over. When the attacks happened, companies stopped hiring. I knew I had to go. From my article back in 2017:
To be honest, I was aching to go back. I may not have been from the city, but New York — my home — had been attacked, and I wanted to be there.
As I drove across the country with an American flag decal displayed on the inside of my back window, I began noticing how many other cars had flags, too. Every time I saw one, I felt a solidarity that’s hard to express. My car still had New York plates — the old ones, with the Statue of Liberty right in the middle — and I was so proud to be seen with them. Every place I stopped for gas, or for food, there was a sobriety in the air. An unspoken sense that we were all in this together, and that it meant something. The closest thing I can compare it to is being part of a family on a special occasion, or being on a football team during a game. The latter is probably more apt, because family is always family, but when you’re on a team, strangers — guys you may not even like day to day– become your brothers once you’re out on the field. It’s probably why so many young men joined the military right then. They wanted to be part of something bigger than themselves. Something that would take the fight to the enemy and not let it happen again.
What I didn’t realize, driving home over those three days, was what had really changed. The world I grew up in, the childhood spent walking the streets of the small Connecticut town where I spent my elementary school years without supervision, the excitement of the dawn of the digital age, the beloved figures of Ronald Regan as president of the United States and John Paul II as pope, was at an end. Nothing would ever be so sure again. Nothing would ever feel as safe.
These are the things you can only explain to the younger generations who didn’t experience the day. Sadly, there’s nothing you can do to allow them to feel it. You can’t help them to understand the sheer epoch-defining change of the thing, and the profound, almost intoxicating sense of social bonding that arose from it.
As I went through my recollections in that 2017 piece this morning, I was surprised to recall that three years ago, I had made the exact observations I wanted to make today. At the time, the threat of movements like Black Lives Matter and Antifa to the stability of American life were relatively minor. Nevertheless, it appears I saw the handwriting on the wall:
In a pre-9/11 world, I wonder if we would have been nearly as complacent, as a society, when Black Lives Matter started shooting cops? Would we have been as restrained when neo-fascists became a thing, or when neo-communists started beating people in our streets? Would we have ever seen coming the uncontested demolition of our historical statues and the undisguised suppression of speech? Would we have ever believed that in the aftermath of attack after attack in the name of Allah, we’d be so afraid to say the words “Islamic terror”? Could we have imagined that Europe would willingly surrender itself to becoming a dhimmi state?
The millennials who are largely responsible for the violence in our new domestic protest movements all grew up in this post-9/11 world. If they are 25 today, they were 9 years old when it happened. If they’re 18 today, they were 2 then. They have never known the world I grew up in. They have never known the America of my youth, where people may have disagreed, but they trusted one another to do the right thing, and the most important arguments of childhood seemed to be about which Garbage Pail Kid was better, whether GoBots or Transformers would win in a fight, or when the next Star Wars movie was coming out. We were taught to love our country, not to hate it and everything it was founded to represent. The promotion of a self-loathing society had won small victories then, but when we began refusing to blame the ideologies responsible for such a heinous attack on our homeland because it wasn’t politically correct to do so, I think we crossed a Rubicon.
How will we ever fully understand how this event shaped our children? How it shaped us?
9/11 was a significant moment in the birth of a new era. A new spirit of a new age that pervades everything. As we look now at the state of things, how can we not see how far things have fallen in the sixteen years since? The world is in incredible turmoil, and the Church along with it. The realities we face do not just threaten us, but we are told we cannot even call them by name. Everything we knew has been threatened; much of what protected us has come, like those towers, tumbling down, leaving us permanently changed.
At some point, the dust has to settle. At some point, we have to begin again. Before we can, though, we have to want to be a part of something bigger than ourselves again. Only then can we begin to rebuild.
I remember how packed the Mass was at one of the biggest parishes in Phoenix on the afternoon of 9/11/2001. There was a somber silence, an unspoken recognition that all of us were there because we needed God, and we needed Him right now, because we were facing something bigger than any of us or our differences and we needed desperately to find a way to make sense of it all. We were facing a hatred and will to destruction — a mortal threat made all too real — like nothing we had ever conceived of.
That peace forged through grief and suffering, that harmonious sense of union among Americans of all ideological stripes, was tenuous and short lived, but it was sincere and palpable while it lasted. It reminded us of our collective humanity. It also prompted some existential questions we should really have spent quite a bit more time on, instead of stuffing them back under the carpet of our ever more divisive political discourse.
What I did not foresee in 2017 is how much more dangerous and disruptive these quasi-Marxist, critical-theory-fueled subversive movements would become than even militant Islam. I don’t know when the last major Islamic attack was — that itself is an odd realization — but I don’t know why they’d bother. We’re too busy destroying ourselves in the name of equality and justice.
The roving bands of barbarians in our streets are, of course, predominately unconcerned with actual justice or equality, desiring only mayhem, vengeance for perceived slights, and free stuff (not necessarily in that order). They seem to have found the sense of belonging all of us crave by nature only by being a part of the mob. They certainly don’t remember what it felt like to be part of something more than themselves, their anger, and their base desires, as Americans experienced 19 years ago. They don’t remember what it meant to exchange meaningful looks of compassion and acknowledgement with complete strangers, and experience the earnest desire to help reassure your fellow man that there was still some decency left in the world. Some decency left in the human race.
Perhaps, in that sense, we’ve failed these disgruntled, nearly feral children as much as they are failing themselves and their country now. We’ve given them an America that must seem to them not worth saving, let alone fighting for. We’ve given them a society that has somehow filled them with a profound, unfocused rage. We’ve malformed and miseducated them. We’ve destroyed their families and left them fatherless. We’ve confused them about not just gender and the natural law, but reality itself, and we’ve taught them to objectify themselves and each other, not only sexually, but ideologically. They no longer see other human beings as people. They only see targets of opportunity – for pleasure, for advantage, for revenge.
We have dehumanized our children. Can we really be surprised to see them acting inhumanely?
I know that readers of this website have fought the cultural lurch into darkness, and have done their best to instill values in their children at home. When I say “we,” I speak of our society, which we have tragically failed to convert. Instead we are forced to watch, as the whole thing transforms into something unspeakable. Unrecognizable. A nightmare version of the world we once felt made sense.
Just as we were forced to watch the towers fall, powerless to stop the horror before us.
I don’t know what we could have done differently. I don’t know what we can do now. I only know that for the first time since the rioting started, I actually feel a profound sadness for these children who are rampaging through the streets, being used by opportunistic political forces only too willing to capitalize on the unrest and anger their “long march through the institutions” has wrought within them. Their crop of young revolutionaries, rootless and devoid of reason, has matured, and the harvest has yielded bitter fruit indeed.
People with meaning and purpose and a sense of belonging do not ravage their cities and towns. They do not beat strangers senseless in the streets. They do not shoot fellow citizens in cold blood, simply because they’re wearing apparel that identifies them as having a different political view.
People with meaning and purpose and a sense of belonging rise up to defend home and neighbor, even at the cost of their lives.
The world we live in grows more absurd and surreal with every passing day, like some Lovecraftian vision of a once great society transformed by endless night. We have to find a way to create meaning again. We have to find a way to love the broken and heal their wounds. We have to find a way to bring the light of truth back to dispel the darkness. We have forgotten that we needed God, and each other, to make it through.
We have forgotten everything we learned and more on those fateful days, 19 years ago.
It’s time to remember, before it’s too late.
Steve Skojec is the Founding Publisher and Executive Director of OnePeterFive.com. He received his BA in Communications and Theology from Franciscan University of Steubenville in 2001. His commentary has appeared in The New York Times, USA Today, The Washington Post, The Washington Times, Crisis Magazine, EWTN, Huffington Post Live, The Fox News Channel, Foreign Policy, and the BBC. Steve and his wife Jamie have seven children.