Twenty years passed but the holes left in my heart by what happened 20 years ago will never get fully filled.

This year, as the city is still struggling through recovery, I’ve been thinking about history vs. memory.

To younger people who weren’t here on this day 20 years ago or were too young to really feel the impact, the events of 9/11 are something that is part of history, similar in weight to the events of Pearl Harbor or the Civil War; those events are a date, a description, some explanation but they are not a feeling. Yes, they are aware that some of the people around them lived through those days but they do not feel the approach of that date in their gut.

To those of us who lived through it, whether it was directly or mediated through a TV screen, that day will forever live us changed. Whether it is for good or for bad is left up to individual interpretation.

20 years; 2 decades; 7300 days; Those are all eventually just numbers, abstractions that give us some form of marker, as all anniversaries do. They work as markers on a time progression of events that happened farther and farther away from us.

While we all remember what happened on that day, the memory of what we thought mattered before the first plane hit somehow faded. I tried but couldn’t recall what the national dialogue was about before that plane hit.  Fortunately, the New York Times has a wonderful archive that allows you to pull up the printed paper from a given day. Here’s what the paper looked like that morning, as people sat down with it for breakfast before hearing that a plane had collided with a Tower in New York:

  • The economy was apparently in a bad shape, unemployment was rising but the lead was presenting what seems like a bygone era: “Key figures in both parties responded to the darkening economic outlook today by exploring possible compromises.” Compromises between the two parties are rarer and rarer these days, which brings the question of what would happen to this country if we were attacked again. Would we unite or would we turn on each other?
  • In a sign that some things don’t change, there was a fight over wearing stuff in schools. Sure, it was about kids wearing too little but the fight over whether kids should wear masks feels similar. In a somewhat prophetic way, the last quote in the article is “It’s hard to imagine, but somethings going to come along and make the bare midriff look less important, too.”
  • Senator Biden worried about the US acting in a unilateral fashion: “‘Are we willing to end four decades of arms control agreements, and go it alone, a kind of bully nation, sometimes a little wrongheaded, but ready to make unilateral decisions in what we perceive to be our self-interest?” Mr. Biden said in his speech at the National Press Club.” Unilateralism was a threat then and is still a threat today, as we all have learned.
  • If you turned the paper to page 15, there were concerns that Osama Bin Laden may have some influence on the Taliban in Afghanistan, where the organization controlled “80 to 90 percent of the country.” The more things change…
  • Terrorism was mostly relegated to the Arts section, where the memoir of a member of the 1970s Weathermen group was quoted as “I don’t regret setting bombs,” Bill Ayers said. ”I feel we didn’t do enough.” That may be the last time that such admission would be treated in a cavalier fashion in the pages of the Times.

That morning, the world was going on, unaware of what was to come next. So as we grapple with a 20th anniversary and with the concerns of our times, it’s a good time to think about how quickly the world can change but also about how resilient people, families, and communities can be.

The morning after, people thought New York was done; In the weeks after, people thought that terrorism would be the most important concern moving forward; and yet, things change.

Today, people think New York is done, even though it recovered from 9/11 and came back roaring; Today’s priorities are dominated by the pandemic, when climate change and local threats to our democracy are forming.

What will the world look like in 20 years? And are hints to those stories that will matter to us then already buried deep in the back of our news cycle?

In Memoriam

Car­los Dominguez, Mark Ellis, Melissa Vin­cent, Michael DiPasquale, Cyn­thia Giugliano, Jeremy Glick, David Hal­der­man, Steve Wein­berg, Ger­ard Jean Bap­tiste, Tom McCann, David Vera.

This post is part of a continuing series in which I remember those I knew who were lost on that day. Here are the previous years: 2020, 2019, 2018201720162015201420132012201120102009200820072006200520042003, and 2002. For context, you might want to read The day after, which is about as raw as one can get about that day as I wrote that piece less than 36 hours after the first plane hit. This is the longest series I’ve ever written and I expect to continue yearly until I can no longer write.

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