Here, on the eve of the 15th anniversary of 9/11, New York seems a city strangely at peace. The physical wounds of that awful day have largely healed. Lower Manhattan has been made whole again. A monument to the dead stands where the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center once stood. A new office building rises from the rubble of Ground Zero. The long-delayed transportation hub is open and millions of people pass through it every day. It took longer and cost far more than it should have, but the job got done.
Pre-9/11, New York was a city on the upswing, well on its way to becoming the safest, most prosperous, most dynamic city in world history. And, contrary to the worst fears of many in the immediate aftermath, the post-9/11 decade turned out to be the best time in recent memory to be a New Yorker. Crime and disorder had been licked. It was safe to take your kids to the park and to ride the subway at any hour. The economy hummed. Tourists came in droves.
Of course, it wasn’t for everybody. People complained about gentrification, as they still do. Some felt that the city had been “Disneyfied”—all the salacious fun had been taken out of it. Others worried that the NYPD had become too potent a presence in the city. In occasional, seemingly random displays of force, a sea of patrol cars would swarm into a neighborhood (mostly in Midtown). The idea was to rehearse a coordinated response to an ongoing attack, but also to send a message to anyone planning such an attack. We are here. We are not sleeping. We are ready for you.
If it was occasionally unnerving to be suddenly surrounded by 50 police cars, lights flashing and moving in formation, it was also reassuring. As other global cities—London, Madrid, Mumbai, Paris, Nairobi—came under sustained attack by Islamic terrorists, it was nice to know how actively the NYPD was hunting down and disrupting plots against our city. Under Mayor Michael Bloomberg and police commissioner Ray Kelly, the NYPD’s mantra was clear: complacency equals death. Never again.
Fifteen years is a long time. You only have to read the stories of the children left orphaned by 9/11 to realize how much time has passed. Kids so young that they barely remember their firefighter fathers are graduating from college. After a decade and a half, we seem to be reverting to a pre-attack mindset. One thing that the Colin Kaepernick brouhaha has exposed is just how conflicted many Americans remain about our fundamental goodness as a nation. Are we as virtuous as we think we are? It’s a question tied directly to the one that was on most people’s minds in the days following 9/11: What did we do to deserve this?
We did nothing to deserve it. The people who went to work in those towers that morning did nothing to deserve the instant obliteration that was their fate. The firefighters and police who selflessly and reflexively responded to the call did nothing to deserve what befell them. The passengers on those planes, and the flight crews that were mercilessly slaughtered, did nothing to deserve to have their lives extinguished in a terrifying instant.
More than that, however, we, the United States of America, did nothing to deserve it. Throughout its short history, this nation has tried to spread liberty in the world, to oppose tyranny, to advance freedom, to promote prosperity, to be a beacon of hope to the oppressed, the mistreated, and the huddled masses yearning to breathe free. No nation, our own included, is without sin; but no other nation is what the United States is. In Lincoln’s words, we are the last best hope of Earth.
Nothing will heal the invisible wounds of 9/11. For those who lived through it, the panic and despair of that terrible morning is never far from the surface. The memories are easily summoned. Those who remember will grieve on this anniversary much as they did on the first anniversary and much as they will decades hence. But we must never lose sight of the truth: we are not the enemy.