Finding meaning in 9/11 + 5

Finding meaning in 9/11 + 5

It has been five years since the Sept. 11 attacks, and the search is on for meaning in this anniversary. We could say we are safer, but we don't know for sure. The U.S. has avoided another attack on its soil, something to be thankful for and possibly to attribute to the many defensive measures taken, but our friends in Europe have not avoided this fate. Are we any less fearful? Commuters in New York or any other big city would beg to differ.

It is certainly a somber anniversary. We did not know how true it was when it was said five years ago that our world had been forever changed. From our vantage point today, there is little to suggest any sort of endgame in the global struggle against terrorism. If anything, we are only deeper enmeshed in this struggle. In part, this is because the ideological foundation of the enemy has broadened and strengthened since the attacks.

Nothing is harder to fight than an enemy that believes in itself and is willing to sacrifice everything. There is extreme irony in this. An enemy that has no respect for religious diversity, the aspirations of women, freedom of speech or due process seems at the moment to believe in its cause more than people who have been fighting and dying for centuries in the cause of freedom. That may simplify history, but it is there, I believe, where the meaning of this anniversary is to be found.

To find the meaning of Sept. 11 five years later, we have to go back to 9/11. We have to remember the reality of that moment, where we were, what we experienced, how we felt. We have to recall the memory of nearly 3,000 innocent people struck down at the World Trade Center and Pentagon and aboard four commercial airliners. We have to recall something else - that amid the smoke rising from lower Manhattan, Washington and a field in southwest Pennsylvania, there was the moral clarity of a sparkling blue day.

That clarity was embodied in the outpouring of sympathy and support that came from all corners of the world. Those were not just obligatory messages of condolence from governments, but profound expressions of solidarity from people around the world. Nobody was in denial about the United States. Were we at the time the only superpower? Yes. Did we have an unblemished record in foreign policy? No. Were we over-reliant on oil and contributors to environmental woe? Yes. Had we been rightfully accused of mistakes and transgressions in our history, many with tragic results? Of course.

But one year after the close of the so-called American century, the world knew that with all things considered, the core of what America stands for is unequivocally good and had been a positive force in the world. World War II had not been forgotten. Nor had the success stories of millions of immigrant families and the money they sent back home. Eastern Europe was free, and Bosnia no longer ablaze. Although it may not have tugged at the heartstrings, some may also have sensed the benefits that have come from open markets and free trade, which America has aggressively promoted over the past half century. All was embedded in the support that followed Sept. 11.

The erosion of that support is what makes this fifth anniversary such a somber occasion. We can dwell on the events that have led to this, but they are well known and hard to get into without discussing politics. Suffice it to say that mistakes, many of them, have been made.

But it's what we take from this moment that is most important. We need to remember that ours is a struggle in service of the greatest possible cause. Our way of life is not just how we choose to live, a choice we make that others may differ with. That is a narrow point of view.

We are who we are because we respect the individual, because we know that within each human being regardless of gender, ethnicity, religion, impairments, you name it, there exists the potential for fulfillment. It is in creating the social conditions to allow the human spirit to realize its immense potential that defines not just the U.S. and all of the West, but represents the greatest cause ever embarked upon in the history of the world.

This cause is what we are fighting for, and the more we remember it, the sooner this war will be over.

Peter Tirschwell is vice president and editorial director of Commonwealth Business Media's Magazine Division. He can be contacted at (973) 848-7158, or at ptirschwell@joc.com.