Eleven years ago, evil overwhelmed us.
One day, maybe, the events of Sept. 11, 2001, will be dry text in a history book, another fact students have to remember for an exam.
Not yet. It was a day of carnage and horror. The smoke that blotted out the sky in New York City, that billowed over the Pentagon and that plumed from a field in Pennsylvania, also cast a pall over America. The confused shock as we tried to understand the early images, and then the months of sharp grief as we heard one tragedy after another, remain vivid. Almost 3,000 died, some instantly but many not, and we watched as families and friends tried to cope.
Americans rose to the tragedy, as they always do. Heroes emerged within minutes, and many became victims. More than 400 police officers and firefighters died at the World Trade Center, sacrificing themselves in their effort to save others. With a grim, “Are you guys ready? Let’s roll,” passengers took down a hijacked jet.
Even as America tried to deal with its grief, it experienced fear and rage. Our determination to protect ourselves and to exact revenge cost us dearly. Today’s political wrangling over the federal debt can, to a great extent, be traced back to that horrible day.
Federal agencies paid out at least $3.3 trillion as a direct result of the terrorist attacks, including costs for war funding, homeland security, veteran’s care and physical damage. More comprehensive estimates bring the total cost to the federal government in the years following the attack to $8 trillion.
Some of our rage, and some of the expense, was misdirected. We took on the entire Islamic world and, in the process, lost our focus on those who meant us harm. A legitimate effort to protect the homeland twisted into a bizarre expansion of federal power.
Eleven years later, though, we are beginning to feel closure. In a move that most Americans would have denounced as reckless had the target been different, we entered a sovereign nation to kill Osama bin Laden. With less precision than we might wish, but without the devastation of additional wars, we have systematically eliminated the leadership of Al Qaeda.
The Iraq War — sold to Americans and the world as a response to Sept. 11 — is finally over. Heroes continue to die in Afghanistan, but the end is in sight.
The anguish of 11 years ago remains vivid, but not quite so raw. We are trying to return to a rational balance of a strong, but affordable, defense. We are remembering that diplomacy is less costly — both in lives and dollars — than war.
Tears will flow today as we remember the horror. But ever so slowly, the terrible wound is healing.