Flight 93 Memorial, Shanksville, PA
Copyright 2013 © by Ralph F. Couey
Photos and written content
Time, as they say, is the healer of all wounds. In most cases, this is true. But for some events, the healing is never complete.
On September 11, we commemorated the 12th anniversary of the terror attacks. In New York City, Arlington, Virginia, and in the rolling countryside near Shanksville, Pennsylvania, as well as hundreds of other places across this country people gathered, bells tolled, names were read aloud, and memories resurfaced.
There are a few people who, for whatever reason, would be happy to see this day pass without notice. But for the vast majority, this is a day of remembrance, a day when we realize that while the wound may have closed, the ache remains.
Thanks to digitized video, the images of that desperate day will live in shocking clarity, preserved for generations to come. Children not yet born to parents yet to meet will experience the record of that awful day much the same as we did.
Yet, we should not only remember those who were lost, and their surviving families and friends, but also those who survived; those who carry scars, both seen and unseen. Their legacy is a daily struggle with survivor's guilt, forever asking the unanswerable question of "why them and not me?"
September 11th is a date which will never need an explanation, or a memory jog. There have been other dates of significance, November 22nd, for example. But 9/11 will always live side-by-side with December 7th (and shame on you if you don't recognize that one). In both tragedies, it was not just about the tremendous destruction and loss of life, but instead about the profound shock those events inflicted upon the American system. In the transition from the day before to the day after, life was completely and permanently altered. On both days, war was thrust upon us. Young people volunteered and shipped out. Some never returned; others came back with horrendous physical wounds. Others, even nearly 70 years later, still carry invisible scars inflicted on the soul and psyche. Similarly, both generations have been reluctant to speak of their experience in combat. As one World War II veteran told me, "I can't tell you about war. If you've never been there, you'll never understand."
While the two conflicts share similarities, there are also significant differences.
World War II eventually ended. Our armies drove to the enemy’s capitol, and their armies were vanquished. The War on Terror, which includes the Gulf Wars, Iraq, and Afghanistan, is altogether different than any other conflict in American history. For the first time, we can’t point to a place on a map and say, "There lies the enemy." We are fighting not an army, a government, or a country, per se, but an idea; the idea that there can only be one religion and all others, along with their followers, must be eradicated. This absolute intolerance makes traditional diplomacy nearly impossible, and perhaps irrelevant. You can negotiate territory; you can negotiate trade; you can negotiate policy. But you cannot negotiate existence. That is a binary: yes or no.
It is very possible that we are in a war that will never end. We are well able to defeat any army, navy, or air force silly enough to attack us. But I’m not so sure about our ability to defeat an idea. Ideas cannot be fenced in by borders, or stopped by road blocks and no-fly zones. Ideas cannot be shot or bombed, and are even invulnerable to drone strikes. Ideas are carried in the minds and hearts of people, spread through every conceivable nuance of human interaction, and then bequeathed to succeeding generations. No matter how many terrorists we identify and locate, or how many we detain or destroy, others will rise and carry the idea forward, as impossible to stop as the implacable sand carried on the wings of the restless desert wind.
We cannot stop the war because our enemies, driven by hate and religious fervor, will not stop. If we cease to defend ourselves, they will swarm upon us like jackals. We cannot withdraw within our borders, because history has proved that whenever America tries to hide from the world, the world will come looking for America.
Hence, we are trapped in an endless cycle. It will not stop, because, quite frankly, nobody knows how.
So, you ask, when will the war end? My answer? No one knows.
Because before we can know the "when," we first must discover the "how."