The feelings of sadness and loss with which we look back on Sept. 11, 2001, have shifted focus over the last eight years. The attacks themselves have begun to acquire the aura of inevitability that comes with being part of American history.
We can argue about what one president or another might have done to head off the vicious attacks, but sadly we cannot really imagine a world in which they never happened, any more than we can imagine what we would be like today if the Japanese had never attacked Pearl Harbor.
What we do revisit, over and over again, is the period that followed, when sorrow was merged with a sense of community and purpose. How, having lost so much on the day itself, did we also manage to lose that as well?
The time when we felt drawn together, changed by the shock of what had occurred, lasted long beyond the funerals, ceremonies and promises never to forget. It was a time when the nation was waiting to find out what it was supposed to do, to be called to the task that would give special lasting meaning to the tragedy that it had endured.
But the call never came. Without ever having asked to be exempt from the demands of this new post-9/11 war, we were cut out. Everything would be paid for with the blood of other people's children and with money earned by the next generation. Our role appeared to be confined to waiting in longer lines at the airport. When we measure the possibilities created by 9/11 against what we have actually accomplished, it is clear that we have found one way after another to compound the tragedy. The war against terror we meant to fight in Afghanistan is at best stuck in neutral. Iraq, which had nothing to do with 9/11 when it was invaded, is now a breeding ground for a new generation of terrorists.
On Friday, every elected official in the country will stop and remember 9/11. But wouldn't it be miraculous if the best of our leaders did something larger and expressed grief and responsibility for the bad path down which we've gone, and promised to work together to turn us in a better direction?
If that kind of coming together happened, we could look back on Sept. 11, 2008, as more than a day for recalling bad memories and lost chances. We could look at it as our second chance.