I remember where I was, exactly five years ago (give or take a half hour). I was home with my 16-month-old son, who was only beginning to walk. I sat in front of the TV for hours that morning, stunned and crying. Ben was too young to have any idea what was going on. He wasn't walking yet, but he could stand up just fine. Indelibly, the sound of his rolling push toy, with its jangly, tinkly rendition of the alphabet song, is imprinted on my memories of September 11, because Ben was playing with it while the planes hit the Twin Towers, while the people evacuated, while the towers turned into rubble, while the terrible day unfolded. He didn't get to play with it much after that day, because the perky music sounded so mournful to me and I didn't want to hear it any more. At least the toy served its purpose in diverting Ben while his mother's mind was hundreds of miles away. That morning, I held Ben close and wondered what sort of world Ben would know—it was no longer the world I grew up in.
I'm sorry for the thousands of people who perished on September 11, 2001, including the selfless rescue workers, and for the families and friends who miss them still. I'm sorry for the survivors who escaped with their lives, but experienced such terrible trauma that day. I'm sorry for the servicemen and women who lost their lives in the wars that followed, and for their families. I'm sorry for the many heroes who toiled at Ground Zero to gather human remains and clear the site, many of whom are now ill from the toxic exposures.
This morning, Ben's school had a memorial service outside before classes started. More than a thousand students and hundreds of parents and staffers gathered. Flag at half mast, the Pledge of Allegiance, the standard patriotic songs (plus an odd "If you stand up for freedom, clap your hands" number), a tall, slender young woman with skin the color of espresso who wore a Statue of Liberty costume, a release of red, white, and blue balloons, and a moment of silence. If I had started to sing along, I would have ended up bawling, so instead I stood quietly and only sniffled. The children and parents there represent the beauty of America—the way this beacon of freedom, imperfect though it may be, draws people from across the globe who want to become Americans, who want their children to be American. People from different continents, cultures, countries. These people, like the immigrant ancestors of Americans born here, strengthen the nation and remind us that what we have is rare, and we shouldn't take it for granted.
The cynic in me can scoff at rosy discussions of freedom and point out the erosion of civil liberties, wars I don't agree with, the persistence of bias. But it is because of our communal commitment to freedom that the United States remains such a powerful magnet. It's imperfect, yes, but its problems are amenable to change through democratic processes. Even a terrorist attack on the nation's power centers didn't change that.