Sunday, May 01, 2011

9/11, 5/1/11, and the Curse of Shiny Objects

Like everybody else alive at the time, I remember exactly where I was the morning of September 11, 2001. I was home from work, the last day of my week-long vacation at WAKA CBS 8, asleep in bed. I would have probably slept until noon, as was my normal routine on my day off, but on this particular morning my phone would not stop ringing. Usually I let the machine pick it up, but whoever was calling would not leave a message, they just hung up and dialed again. Angrily, after, the third cycle of this, I finally dragged myself out of bed and answered in a terse voice, "What?"

"Mike, it's Heather! Turn on the TV! The World Trade Center was attacked and the Pentagon just exploded! It's like World War 3!" It was one of my roommates calling from work. She was talking so fast I could barely understand what she was saying, and what I could understand sounded like I was still asleep, experiencing some strange dream. I grabbed the remote and turned on NBC. It became very clear very quickly that this was no dream. I barely had time to comprehend everything Tom Brokaw was saying about all the chaos that had unfolded in the last few hours when the first Tower suddenly collapsed right before my eyes. It was one of the most surreal experiences of my life.

The rest of the day was a blur of disbelief, grief, and shock. But whenever I think about that day, I also remember what happened to this country in the days following. There was a sense of American unity unlike any in our history. For about 3 months, we all stopped caring about our differences and just became Americans. We had something to mourn together and something to rally behind. The flag was flying everywhere you looked. It was like we all forgot to be Democrat or Republican and just became neighbors. It sucks that it took such a tragic event for it to happen, but for a brief shining moment out of the darkness of 9/11, we became the country we always hoped we could be. One nation.

Of course, it didn't last, and we all went back to the petty squabbles and finger-pointing that we'd been so good at before. In a lot of ways, the divisions that existed in the country before 9/11 just got bigger and deeper. In the last decade, pleasant debate has turned into vitriolic rancor. It's deafening how much hate and divisiveness exist in this country. Just read any message board on the internet and one starts to wonder if we're on the verge of collapse, a latter-day Roman Empire crumbling from within.

So now comes word that the guy responsible for the act of terrorism that pretty much caused all this is dead. American Special Forces stormed Osama Bin Laden's compound, shot him in the head, and carted off his body. It sounds like the plot of a Tom Cruise movie, but it's real. I blows my mind. From the moment Bin Laden's death was announced, crowds started forming at Ground Zero, waving flags and sharing in the moment. It was kind of surreal to watch it all unfold on screen, which seemed oddly appropriate for how this whole thing started.

But I can't help but wonder if this is yet another giant distraction that disguises the fact that we still have huge chasms between us in this country. Sure, it might feel good to our baser instincts that the author of the 9/11 plot is dead, but is the world any different now than it was when he was still alive? Probably not. It makes for good headlines, and truth be told I'm glad the evil fucker is dead, but it seems like too little too late. We aren't any better off than we were before 9/11, in fact we're a lot worse. There are serious problems left to be solved, and countless tragedies that we have suffered since that September morning. I have to give the U.S. credit for seeing the mission through over the last decade and taking Bin Laden out, but wouldn't that effort been better spent in solving the energy crisis? Or the housing crisis? Or figuring out how to keep the middle class from disappearing?

I was looking at footage of the destruction left behind last week during the Tuscaloosa tornado and thought to myself that the people who survived that tragedy probably don't care in the slightest that Bin Laden is dead. They've got much bigger problems to worry about. Like where to live. Or where their loved ones are. Or how many funerals they have to attend. But, as it happens all too often in this country, we get distracted by the next shiny object and move on. Look! The Royals are getting married. Look! Bin Laden's dead. Look! Dancing with the Stars is on. We just lose sight of the important stuff and turn into an entire country of ADD sufferers. It's easy to do, and I'm just as guilty as the next person.

But I hope that one day we all wake up and realize that we need to fix the problems in front of us before we move on to the next one. America used to be the place where the world turned to be inspired. I mean, we landed on the moon once. That carries a lot of weight. Now it seems it's the place everyone turns to get distracted. Who cares about gas prices when Kim Kardashian has a new sex tape? Who cares about education when Thor is about to come out? Who cares about the victims of a natural disaster when Charlie Sheen is stopping by? It took us ten years to figure out how to land on the moon, but I bet if we tried again it wouldn't take ten minutes before we got sidetracked and gave up and started playing XBox. The problems we face today are hard and difficult and aren't going to be solved overnight. It's going to take focus and determination look! Will Ferrell is shaving Conan's beard on TBS!

Wait, what was I saying?

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