I remember the morning of 9/11. On that day, I was employed as a lobbyist with a non-profit organization. I pulled out the driveway to head to downtown Atlanta. Almost immediately, there was a news update reporting on a small plane that had hit the World Trade Center. Interesting, but not a big deal. Before long, I’d made it to the state department of education to pick up some paperwork. I don’t remember how it took, but as I drove to our office on the north side of town, a friend from law school called with tremendous urgency to tell me that one of the towers of the WTC had collapsed. I arrived at my destination to see the second tower fall.
My colleagues and I sat in shock. The news piled up. The Pentagon had been directly hit. There was a rumor about an attack on the State Department (untrue). We wondered what other shoes might drop. Would the siege continue? One thing seemed certain. I thought life in the U.S. would never be the same.
At first, it seemed my prophecy might be true. We had booked a trip to the Caribbean well before the tragedy. Our flight was maybe a week or two after the attacks. When we went to the Atlanta airport, it was a ghost town. But there were new inhabitants. We walked past soldiers with automatic weapons after we checked in with our luggage. I felt as if I’d moved to some Central American republic of the moment.
Over time, we have adapted to the need for greater security. Airports are less fun than they once were, but the industry has found ways to become more efficient so as to take some of the irritation away. We don’t have the level of intrusiveness that I forecast (though some would argue that it occurs without my realizing it, Hello NSA).
The greater cost has been in terms of our national spirit. Easy victory in the Gulf War of the early 1990’s led us to believe that our response to 9/11 would take the form of another quick hit followed by a victory lap. And we did get the victory lap (remember Mission Accomplished!?). But the problem was that we hadn’t won. The United States learned the same hard lesson that occupiers have been taught throughout human history. Most of the time, you don’t win. You are an invader, an intruder. You aren’t wanted, not even as a liberator.
We don’t seem to be able to solve problems like some benevolent international justice league. We can’t go knock off the bad guys and then leave while the villagers rejoice. The only way to win is to take the gloves off. And we aren’t sure we want that on our consciences. Taking the gloves off is ugly. Taking the gloves off hurts people who shouldn’t be hurt. Lots of them.
More than a decade after 9/11, we seem to have come full circle as we watch men in masks cutting heads off of journalists. They challenge us. They goad us. They threaten. But they should stop lest they overcome the spiritual restraints we place upon ourselves out of love for God and man. They should stop before they convince us that limited means cannot achieve a lasting peace.