Why We Don't Talk About September 11th

My feelings about what happened ten years ago are complicated. The events, the aftermath, and the consequences don't seem to have any clarity around them.

But I've learned one thing for sure: The events that took place at the World Trade Center in lower Manhattan ten years ago mean different things to different people. And until we understand that, there isn't going to be a conversation.

The two factors that most impact people about the 9/11 story are distance and age. 

If you were in New York City that day, and over the age of twelve or thirteen, then you lived through it. For teens; it has become the single most visible event that propelled your young adulthood forward. Terribly, some of you lost a parent, or a family friend. But more of you have either enlisted or known friends who've enlisted. The era of relative peacetime ended on 9/11--and you've grown up in an era of perpetual never-ending war. It's shaped how you feel about safety, the government, and America's place in the world.

If you were older, perhaps 25 or so, and living in New York, then 9/11 changed your world in different ways. It raised your suspicions about the government, the media, the very nature of truth. And while the conspiracy theories that blanket the web are myriad, the result is the same. Trust, and truth, seem to be up for grabs. 

For the generation of New Yorkers who were old enough to remember previous jolts of fear, 9/11 raises profound questions about why this city, with its diverse population and history of providing generations of new immigrants with a place to build a life, would be a target.

Children, teens, adults--among New Yorkers, these groups have very different feelings about that day, and the days that followed.

Now, step away from the city. Go beyond the group of us who smelled that rancid burning, and watched for months as our city was turned from a vibrant economic engine into a wasteland of fear and destruction.

If you go down to Liberty and Greenwich streets, to the firehouse where Engine 10 and Ladder 10 are still housed, or the fences that surround the soon-to-open National 9/11 Memorial, you won't find many New Yorkers there. Instead, you'll find folks from across the country reading the names of the men and women who perished. You'll see them wipe away a tear, take a picture, and move on. Some of them have a souvenir from the Statue of Liberty. Some of them have a new piece of electronics from J&R. Young and old, Americans know that 9/11 was a wake-up call, and in some ways, experiencing that day from a distance made the message all that more powerful. While New Yorkers often say they want to "move on," visitors from across the country visit Ground Zero in search of something important. The attack was personal to them, as it was to us, but they seem hungry for understanding and answers in way that may not be as urgent for those of us who experienced the day, and the weeks that followed, first-hand.

But perhaps, almost unnoticed, is the powerful need that people around the world feel in connecting with the 9/11 story and our response. I've experienced this myself, talking to film producers and reporters as the world media has geared up to cover the anniversary. But I suspect that their interest is more than a prurient need to fill a story on deadline. I expect that their readers and viewers are deeply interested in the next chapter in the 9/11 story, and now we have somd early data that illustrates that.

In just two days, the readers in Europe who've downloaded the 911 Memorial: Past, Present, and Future app (which I developed) have already pulled ahead of U.S. downloads. And that is despite significantly more attention in the U.S. 

Why is this? What do people from Europe and Asia need to learn about 9/11? Again, spending time on streets surrounding the site, it's clear that their interest is far more than just casual tourism. The attack, it seems, hurt them just as deeply as it did us. And raised for them concerns about how we'd respond and rebuild. 

In coming and shedding a tear and taking the picture, they assimilate the experience to a degree, and they understand it on a deeper level, it starts to allow a common conversation, and the tone struck by the Memorial and Museum will shape that. 

In less than a week, the sacred land of Ground Zero will become public space. And the conversation, about not just the U.S., but the world, will take the natural next step forward. The balance between safety and freedom, between tolerance and our understanding of different beliefs and perspectives. The World Trade Center Memorial will act as a catalyst for conversations both here and abroad. 

As Architect Michael Arad told me, the Memorial is a place of solemn remembrances, and a place to embrace life. It is a place to reflect on those who've passed, and to look at the leaves in the white swamp oak trees and embrace the simple beauty of rebirth and renewal.

So, why don't we talk about 9/11? It may be that its just too soon for the city, the nation, or the world to have a coherent conversation. It's been just ten years. "A blink in time," my historian friends remind me.

One can only hope that the citizens of increasingly global world will, over time, be able to connect with the 9/11 memorial site and use it to find a shared understanding and language for communication.  

This year? It feels like the beginning of a whole new chapter that explores complex questions and starts to find real answers.

[Top image: Flickr user JulieFinestone]

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