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By Elie Honig
There’s just no way. It can’t be that 20 years have passed since September 11, 2001. I can’t be alone in this. It still feels like, if not quite yesterday, then something still immediate and raw.
September 11 changed everything, of course. And as time passes, it feels like September 11 has even changed time itself, or at least the perception and memory of time. Twenty years have gone by. But as my grandmother — herself a survivor of another of humanity’s unimaginable atrocities, at another time and place — used to say: it’s all the blink of an eye. Indeed.
The Freedom Tower is no longer a novelty on the City’s skyline. It looks natural now, like it’s been there, like it belongs. There’s a small September 11 memorial at the train station in my quiet suburban commuter town. It lists the names of about 700 people from New Jersey who died that day, including 13 from my town and the next town over. I’m sure they must’ve hopped on NJ Transit that morning for what felt like just another wholly forgettable, let’s-get-this-over-with ride into the City. They’d never take another. Starting a few years later, I did the same commute, thousands of times, and I realize now that I took all of those rides for granted. Just the basic, daily stuff means much more when you think about what was lost.
Over time, that 9/11 memorial has become part of the town, like the memorial to war veterans, a few hundred yards away. Like the infinitely grander Freedom Tower, our humble commemorative display doesn’t feel new anymore, either. It feels like it’s always been there. I’m sure kids look at the local memorial now and think, that’s something from history, if they even consciously notice it at all.
I keep coming back to this notion of time. How many people just barely missed the 8:31 a.m. train to the World Trade Center and had to wait for the 8:57 instead? How many people slept in a few minutes extra because they stayed up late to watch the Giants lose to the Broncos on Monday Night Football? How many people detoured to grab a quick bite and ended up waiting in line at a deli rather than taking the elevator straight up? Arbitrary movements, thoughtless actions that should have been inconsequential, a bagel on a Tuesday morning, ended up meaning everything, utterly without rhyme or reason.
Time slips away and you hardly notice, most days. But suddenly, without warning, two decades pass. Babies and toddlers who were left without a parent on September 11 are now in college, or working, some with families of their own to support. I now teach college undergraduates who weren’t born yet on September 11. It’s surreal discussing the events of that day as something that happened just before they were born, as a professor might have explained Watergate to me.
It hit me just recently: I’m now almost the same age as my parents were on September 11, 2001. But of course, any parent knows that you feel the movement of time most acutely when it comes to the kids. The saying is true: with kids, the days are long but the years fly by. Mine still have a few years left at home, but suddenly, it’s not many. And we’re just past the season when those first dormitory dropoff posts dominate social media. Wow, she’s at Villanova now — I remember visiting her mom there. Or: There he is at Penn State; he used to dominate Little League here in town. Seven-hundred-and-some days from now, I’ll be loading up the car for the first time too.
September 11 re-oriented us in countless ways. On a tangible level, it changed our government, our laws, our national security apparatus, and just about everything else. It also changed our awareness of ourselves. We’re small, we’re subject to buffeting winds of luck and happenstance, and we’re helpless against time.
But at least we can be more conscious of time, its passage, and its value. It became a common refrain in the hours and days right after 9/11 to hug those around you a little tighter. Back then, it meant, mostly, be thankful they’re safe. But now, it means something broader: everything moves on, quicker than you realize, so treasure what you’ve got, right now. Yes, it is all the blink of an eye. But that doesn’t mean it’s without meaning. It means we need to make a conscious effort to remember.