It’s odd how a combination of numbers, or a date, can become ominous – how they can take on a weight beyond their intrinsic value and become transcendent, a sound bite short cut for a host of emotions and a common, shared history.
Today is September 11 – 9/11, as it were.
I still remember the day vividly, as most will. Mine began it with a 9 a.m. dentist appointment, sitting bored and impatient in a drab downtown office as rumors began to bubble up, feeling that I was missing something both obvious and important.
Details began to emerge; a thread of a story. A plane had hit. Another followed. Still, something was absent.
The few sitting in that little office shared our common surprise; though, in hindsight, it paled compared to the shock that would follow as the full story emerged. But, right then and there… On with the day. Bring on the poking and prodding. Bring on the floss. Bring on the cold water.
Then a realization from the back of my mind: my wife was in Manhattan.
With no phone service and modern communications severed, I raced to the office. A television had been set up in the kitchen and I arrived in time to see the first tower fall.
It’s difficult to describe the feeling of overwhelming and impotent panic that washed over me; that crushing uselessness. Despite some exceedingly clean teeth, I was stuck in Toronto, powerless to have any influence on the situation playing out hundreds of miles away.
I’ve heard the events of September 11 compared to Pearl Harbor, and as a student of military history I can appreciate the strategic and geopolitical implications of such an event. But it’s a simplistic and failed comparison.
I’ve stood over the grave of the Arizona and studied the names on the white wall of the monument that floats above it, and I can only imagine the ripples which that Day of Infamy caused in American society. I can only imagine the waves of telegrams that followed, a tide of misery flowing into thousands of little American towns, each a crushing missive to be hand-delivered to a home proudly displaying a flag that boasted a star for each son or husband serving under arms.
But, for all that grief, it’s a poor comparison still. The ripples that flowed out from New York that day stretched beyond the confines of America. They flowed here to Toronto and parts beyond. And they were felt not as the dull drumbeats of war, nor as empty news items to be grumbled over and forgotten. They were felt viscerally. They shook us all to our cores and tore us from our daily routines – American, Canadian, English, French, German, and all. They caught our breath, clean teeth or none, and paused the entire world.
In the years that have passed, much of the shock has worn off. Much of the legacy of that day has been squandered for political purposes. But it is vitally important that this date be remembered as more than just the starting gun for the latest round of manifest destiny.
It must be remembered as a day when our basest humanity was exposed, and as a race united, we looked towards a burning field and felt the weight of a core and common concern.