Originally published on September 11, 2015
It was too early. That’s all I could think about. I was 20 years old and a junior at Marquette University, and it was way too early to be up and walking to campus.
My friend Andy rollerbladed past me and I nodded at him and yawned. It was too early to be overly friendly.
Our friend Rob had convinced us to join him on a daily morning show on Marquette Radio, and we were about to start just our second show. Already I was having second thoughts about committing an entire semester to this, since it was 6:30 in the morning and way too early to be on the air.
It was September 11th, 2001. And it was way too early.
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I never really paid much attention to what was going on in the world. Like most 20 year-olds, I was far more preoccupied with the next exam and the next party than I was with the next election. The world was far less important than my world, and its issues paled in comparison to mine.
Like most 20 year-olds, I was self-centered enough to believe that, and to believe that somehow my world was insulated from the world’s horrors that seemed a world away.
Just like America on the early morning of September 11th, 2001.
It was way too early for a nation to be roused from the delusion that geographical distance insulated us from those horrors; that our trivialities mattered more than the gathering storm to which we were willfully oblivious.
But on a sunny morning, that storm exploded, and so too did our innocence. I could no longer focus on exams and parties, just as America could no longer focus on shark attacks and Chandra Levy and whatever else we had preoccupied ourselves with that made it impossible to see the storm clouds.
Now we couldn’t ignore the dust cloud rising from the fallen symbol of our prosperity and might as a nation. As prosperous and mighty as we were, though, we couldn’t see beyond ourselves. We couldn’t let ourselves believe that there was a world out there that hated us for our prosperity, hated us for our might, hated us for being us.
Even those of us who prided ourselves on paying attention to what was going on in the world paid attention only to what was going on in our world. Bush v. Gore was far more important than Good v. Evil, but now that was the battle that we needed to fight.
Presidential politics suddenly seemed petty, while presidential leadership was more important than ever. Of course, politics would very quickly seep back into our assessment of that leadership, but on September 11th, we were united in horror, then anger, and then resolve.
For the first time in my life, I cared about the world around me because I was suddenly part of a world whose problems I couldn’t ignore. For the first time in decades, America was again part of a world whose horrors we couldn’t passively read about and then shrug off.
They were here. They were smoldering from the ruins of the World Trade Center, the gaping hole in the Pentagon, and the wreckage of a plane in Pennsylvania.
And we couldn’t look away.
Whether we wanted to be or not, we were now a part of something bigger than all of us, and we all knew it.
All I had wanted to do was to tell jokes on the radio, or maybe someday be a lawyer or whatever—I wasn’t too concerned since I had an exam on Friday and a party to go to on Saturday night. All America wanted to do was to keep on focusing on triviality and keep reveling in our prosperity and might.
It was too early for our innocence to be pierced like that. It was too early for us to be roused from our delusion, but now, for the first time in our lives, we were fully awake.
But at some point over the next 14 years (or, more accurately 14 months), we grew tired of that resolve and resumed our obsession with triviality. Keeping up with the Kardashians was far easier than keeping up with global affairs, and we became so complacent that even our leaders refused to call our war with evil a war. It was an “overseas contingency operation.”
We as a nation retreated back into our self-delusion, trying to convince ourselves that snapping a finger and declaring an end to wars in Afghanistan and Iraq would put an end to our need to confront the evil that had vowed long ago to never end its war with us.
Politics, not resolve, again guided our decision-making, and we again wanted nothing more than to pretend that the most important thing in the world were our little worlds—far apart from the storm that had never stopped gathering strength.
Osama Bin Laden is dead, we told ourselves. There’s nothing left to oppose us but a “J.V. team” and, since our war-mongering President has long since left office, we have nothing left to fear from a world that can no longer harm us.
Such has been the power of our delusion that we ignore the atrocities committed by a varsity army much stronger and more horrific even than al-Qaeda, and we instead blindly trust an Iranian government not to spend hundreds of billions of dollars in sanctions relief on sponsorship of Islamic terrorism.
Such is the power of our delusion that we can no longer even bring ourselves to utter the phrase. A politically correct fantasy in which American imperialism is the only true evil in the world has replaced the cold reality that we all felt on September 11th, 2001.
In that respect, not much has really changed since that early morning. We are still walking, half-asleep, to our jobs, our classes, our lives with the naïve hope that we have once again become insulated from evil.
Once a year, we renew our pledge to always remember, but from September 12th through September 10th, we do everything in our power to forget.
Evil, however, never does, and every so often—at a marathon in Boston, an army base in Texas, or a consulate in Libya—it reminds us that it also never sleeps.
And we can’t either, because if we don’t wake up from 14 years of pretending it’s too hard, too mean, too politically incorrect, or just too early to defeat that evil; it will be far too late.