Is 9/11 History?

As we approach the tenth anniversary of the attacks of September 11, 2001, we find ourselves consumed with remembrances and interpretations of that day, and its impact on our lives since.

Smithsonian 9/11 Exhibit. Photo credit: J Dickson

We are as consumed with these as we were riveted to television that day, watching over and over again the unimaginable images of planes flying into the buildings and of buildings collapsing.  So many of us have our own story to tell of that day, where we were, how we found out, and, incredibly, how we knew someone in the buildings, on their way to the buildings, or caught up in the rescue efforts.

My own story is set in an airplane, flying across the Atlantic with my son, landing in London to learn that something terrible had just happened by the mere question of the rental car agent who asked “Are you American?”

I have a family member who was an EMT who was in the area when the towers fell (and survived.)  I have a colleague whose son was late to work that morning and never entered the building before it was hit.

We all have our own stories as well of our response to that day, of friends and family in combat missions in Afghanistan and Iraq, of being lied to, and in my case, trying to defend to foreign partners our government’s actions based on this misinformation.

We have lived with and adapted to the heightened security, most evident in our travel but also in and around our monuments and workplaces.

This is still not history, though, as we are still living it.  We are still fighting wars as a consequence, we are still in a state of heightened security, and we are still living with the debt run up to fight those wars.

History will come when our soldiers have returned home, when our economy is responding to other challenges, when we are no longer x-rayed and photographed while trying to board planes.  Historic understanding tells us that these realities will not endure.  Just as the fall of the Berlin Wall signaled the end of the Cold War, this 9/11 chapter will also end, replaced by the next development, hopefully without the horrific or far-reaching consequences that those 20 hijackers unleashed ten years ago.

The Smithsonian Museum of American History has now an exhibit of 9/11.  As the repository for all artifacts collected from New York, Washington and Pennsylvania, the museum has put a small sampling on display, on tables out from behind glass cases for people to see and read and experience the short stories of each item.   We stood in line for over an hour to enter the small room, with four tables on which lay these artifacts – the cell phone used by New York Mayor Rudy Guiliani, a doll collected from the scene of the two towers, badges of office workers and rescue workers from all three sites or a door from a crushed fire engine.

The most powerful, though, remains the video of the television news, unfolding that morning, with Good Morning America starting off with the breaking news that Michael Jordan was considering a comeback to the NBA that season, followed by the initial reports of an explosion at the World Trade Center, and then the live coverage of the second plane flying into the second tower, the fire at the Pentagon, the crash in the Pentagon and the collapse of the two towers.

The anniversary will focus on the heroes, of the day and since.  And there are many, and they deserve our gratitude and admiration.  History will also record their actions that day, that year and the decade since.  But what history will also have to try to capture was the sheer sense of disbelief, of paralysis as we sat and watched over and over again these images.   That was our collective reality.

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