On September 11th, 2001, on what was a perfect morning -- right up until the very moment a Boeing 767-223-ER slammed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center -- I stood on the corner of Delancey and Ridge Streets in downtown Manhattan.
I was working on an election campaign – it was primary day in New York – and little did I realize that politics, culture and our entire trajectory as a nation was about to change forever. I had been alerted to the first crash by a friend calling my cell phone, but it was as I was staring at the gaping hole in this New York City landmark, in horror, shock set in as I saw a second plane approaching.
I can see it all in slow motion these days – the airplane seemed to glide in almost effortlessly, and as I and others around stood unable to move, a loud explosion echoed through the canyons of lower Manhattan as a fireball erupted that almost seemed to reach where I was standing. It was, for lack of a better term, surreal.
For me, the journey forward from that day would be a difficult one. I was born and raised in Manhattan and was young enough that I couldn’t remember the city without those two awe-inspiring landmarks. It is what I would use to figure out where I was going whenever I came up from the subway system.
I had to process the knowledge that I had been in the North Tower only 16 hours before the attack. Because I had been delivering campaign literature to a volunteer who lived in the neighborhood and thought to myself, “I haven’t been in the Twin Towers for a while.”
What sticks with me most, though, is that after seeing the second plane hit, a lanky, salt-and-pepper-bearded man standing next to me who was holding his bike at his side, saying, “this is terrible; we’re going to be at war tomorrow.”
He wasn’t far off the mark. He only underestimated the wars.
The result for me was that for a few years after the tragedy, any images or even talking about 9/11 gave me a deep feeling of dread in the pit of stomach. The result for my country, however, was worse. And we’re still living with it every day.
Perhaps that is why it is fitting that this past week former Vice President Dick Cheney has been on his media tour to promote his memoir, openly bragging about the use of torture, warrantless wiretapping and other illegal actions that he approved while in office.
It is therefore interesting that in interviews, one-time friends of the former VP turned antagonists, such as President George H W Bush’s National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft and Secretary of State Colin Powell’s Chief of Staff Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, have said that they don’t recognize Dick Cheney anymore.
Cheney, as much or more than anyone else in the post-9/11 period, used the loopholes in our system, the lack of nerve in Washington and fear created by that day to transform this nation slowly into something we would not have recognized as recently as the late 90s or dawn of the 2000s.
We became a harder people. Less forgiving. More on edge. No longer our brother’s keeper. More fanciful.
Along with President Bush, Cheney made it mundane to operate prisons overseas, beyond the reach of due process. House GOP Majority Leader Eric Cantor thought nothing of demanding budget cuts to offset the costs of helping those whose lives were destroyed by Hurricane Irene. The response of Texas Governor Rick Perry to a drought in his state is to pray for it to go away.
Meanwhile, President Obama, whose campaign of hope and change was exactly the antidote to the cultural angst that became the norm in post-9/11 America, has not only continued many of the Bush Administration’s civil liberties violations, he has actually added a few gems of his own that even Bush didn’t try, such as condoning the assassinations of American citizens without due process.
Like many Americans, I find myself having followed a long and winding road over the last decade, ending up in places I truly never expected, only in recent years coming to terms with what I saw that day. Of course, for many people, the economic crash was like a second attack.
But it is where my country has gone over this past decade that is truly unfathomable. It’s important to remember as the 10-year anniversary approaches that we may have lost our way – but buried beneath many wrong turns is a national character that has been redeemed in the past.
In the beginning of the movie Gladiator, Marcus Aurelius, before being assassinated by his son in a coup, says to the man he wishes were his son, General Maximus, “There was once a dream that was Rome. You could only whisper it. Anything more than a whisper and it would vanish … it was so fragile.”
Such is the nature of American democracy – really, any democracy. To truly honor the sacrifices made that terrible day by almost 3,000 people living in America, it is a dream we need to get back.
Follow me on Twitter @cliffschecter