"But war, in a good cause, is not the greatest evil which a nation can suffer. War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things: the decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling which thinks nothing worth a war, is worse. When a people are used as mere human instruments for firing cannon or thrusting bayonets, in the service and for the selfish purposes of a master, such war degrades a people. A war to protect other human beings against tyrannical injustice – a war to give victory to their own ideas of right and good, and which is their own war, carried on for an honest purpose by their free choice – is often the means of their regeneration. A man who has nothing which he is willing to fight for, nothing which he cares more about than he does about his personal safety, is a miserable creature who has no chance of being free, unless made and kept so by the exertions of better men than himself. As long as justice and injustice have not terminated their ever-renewing fight for ascendancy in the affairs of mankind, human beings must be willing, when need is, to do battle for the one against the other."

Friday, September 11, 2009

Eight years on

It's been four years since I woke up one Tuesday morning, looking forward to a relaxing start to an easy day with only one class late in the afternoon, to find my roommates glued to the television, newscasters almost unable to comprehend what they were reporting on, and, apparently, the whole world on fire. By the time I finally tuned in, both towers of the World Trade Center were burning and the Pentagon had a hole in it; reports were just beginning to come in about a plane crash of some kind in Pennsylvania; and rumors were flying wild, including one of a bomb set off on the Washington Mall. We sat there, watching reruns of the planes striking each building, watching smoke pour out of the gaping wounds in the Twin Towers, watching people hanging their heads out the windows for air and, in some cases, flinging themselves down into the streets below, choosing death by falling rather than death by incineration.

I remember the first person I called that morning was my Marine selection officer: I wanted to know if there was anything I had to do, if we might get called up to do something or other (a silly question, of course, since I had all of 12 weeks of extremely basic training and I'd be lucky if all I did was shoot one of my fingers off without hurting anyone else). The second person was my mother. I wanted to know what she made of all of this, whether they were even reporting it in Canada, if perhaps Canadian news had some outside tidbits of information we lacked. She was the original American in my life; I thought maybe she'd have some insight from all her years here about who, what, why this was happening. But few people knew anything that morning, other than the fact that we were under attack. So all we could do was watch.

The first Tower fell. Clouds of smoke, dust, and ash billowed through the streets of downtown New York as people tried to outrun it. At the Pentagon, flames roiled up out of the gash that had been cut to the very center of the building. Rumors of a fourth plane wreck were confirmed, and we got our first look at the gaping scar of earth where Flight 93 had come to grief. The second Tower fell. Manhattan was now obscured by sheets of haze and smoke as the debris spread and fires burned. I don't remember what we said to each other, if anything. It was all so unexpected, so unbelievable. It was supposed to be a Tuesday like any other. What was it now?

My one class for the day was cancelled, but I still had to go to cross-country practice. I was a co-captain of nine or ten guys who also thought that today was going to be just like any other day. I tried to think of something to say to them; I think what I came up with was something about our country getting hit hard, but that we still had to press forward and not let this interrupt our lives. Whatever I said, it wasn't memorable. Someone else on the team said something far better in far fewer words as we practiced. We were running laps around the track, and our workout was almost done when Chris Ambrose, crossing the start line, yelled out, "Let's do it for New York and DC!" The guys jumped across the line, and I thought I would break down completely right there.

The rest of the week was turned upside down. Classes were cancelled the next day, as I recall, and we had a memorial service instead. I remember Father Jonathan trying to hold back tears as he told us that he'd learned of an alumnus who'd died in the World Trade Center. I heard from my parents that the father of several kids who attended my old high school had also died there. That morning of rapid destruction was starting to ripple across the country and across borders.

At some point that week we learned that Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda were taking credit for the attacks. I think my first reaction was, "What the heck is al Qaeda?" I'd heard of bin Laden a few times, in connection with the USS Cole bombing and the attacks on American embassies in Africa; but he certainly wasn't a topic of daily conversation in the news. Now, his face was everywhere, and eventually a video tape emerged of him gloating as he learned how successful his plans had been.

By then I really didn't care who was behind it. All I knew was that these attacks had given my rather general decision to join the Marine Corps a focus that it previously lacked. Before 9/11, I'd wanted to join up out of a fascination with the American military tradition, a general desire to serve my country, and go with the Marines because they had a bad-ass reputation and the coolest uniforms. Now there was a specific purpose: I would make it my personal responsibility to make sure that no one I loved would ever have to see what we saw that morning ever again, or be threatened by the kind of men who perpetrated it.

9/11 gave focus to something else too. It made me realize that my fun little fling with this big ole sea-to-shining-sea country had, over the last couple of years, developed into a full-fledged love affair. I could no longer joke around that I had one foot North of the 49th parallel and one foot South: when the Towers fell, I knew that both feet would be forever here. Because what I saw that morning hurt me more than anything I could remember in the twenty-odd years of my life. This wonderful country where I'd found an incredible school, even more incredible friends (and ultimately, in the months to come, the love of my life), a way of life that was energetic, freewheeling, and boisterous, neighbors and acquaintances who challenged me and made me think about who I was and what I believed - this place that had given me so much was now reeling under a blow from petty, angry little men who couldn't even begin to understand what they were attacking. I hadn't felt so stung by any single event before or since. Hurricane Katrina has come pretty close, but Katrina was a natural event, one beyond our power to control. It was a force without guidance or malice. 9/11 was committed malice aforethought. It was the purposeful decision by a group of men to kill as many of their fellow human beings as possible.

The rage and pain that this barbaric act generated were indescribable, and though the years have dulled these feelings, they've never subsided. They come flooding back to me now as I write this, and I'm actually a little surprised that they're still this strong. That's a good thing, though: it means that I still haven't forgotten what it felt like that Tuesday morning, on what was supposed to be an easy, relaxing day. I hope I never forget, and that the rest of America never does either.

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