This week, Americans will mark the solemn anniversary of Sept. 11. As we do, we'll think back to where we were when we first heard that the unthinkable had happened. As we observe moments of silence, light candles, listen to sermons and speeches, or sing "God Bless America," we'll remember the bewilderment, the fear, the horror and the outrage.
That powerful emotional response is the key to observing another anniversary this week, possibly an even more important one. It's the anniversary of Sept. 12, the day when the shock began to wear off and the full dimensions of the tragedy began to become clear. On Sept. 12, 2001, we resolved not to stay sitting stunned in front of our TV screens but to get out and do something for our nation.
On that day, blood banks overflowed, such a throng of people showed up to help at ground zero that many had to be turned away, and tens of millions of dollars poured in to charities. On Sept. 12, the media abandoned their obsession with shark attacks, overage Little Leaguers and Gary Condit, and did an exemplary job keeping the public up to date and informed. And our political leaders set aside party squabbles and put the national interest first.
It was the best of times amid the worst of times. But it sure didn't last.
Who on Sept. 12 would have imagined that one year later a vital Homeland Security bill would be bottled up in Congress -- stalled by partisan bickering? That the most talked about initiative of our new Homeland Security czar would be his laughably lame color-coded terror warnings? That our airports would still be as porous as the S.S. Minnow, with security screeners routinely failing to detect guns, knives and simulated explosives smuggled onboard by undercover investigators? That a grand total of one person would have been charged in connection with 9/11? Or that business leaders would be marking the anniversary of the attacks by lobbying the White House to back off on heightened security procedures at ports and border checkpoints implemented in the wake of 9/11 because of their negative effect on corporate America's bottom line?
"Any more is going to kill us," bleated a vice president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce last week -- a turn of phrase I doubt he would have used last Sept. 12, when the bodies were still being pulled from the smoldering rubble.
And given the steely resolve and stern promises of retribution filling the air on Sept. 12, who would have thought that Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar would still be alive -- let alone free to continue plotting further destruction against the U.S.? Or that the War on Terror would have devolved into a blinding obsession with regime change in Iraq while the rulers of Saudi Arabia (home to 15 of the 19 Sept. 11 hijackers and proud sponsors of telethons benefiting families of suicide bombers) are honored guests at the president's Crawford ranch?
And would anybody watching the media's purposeful use of the public airwaves for the public's benefit on Sept. 12 have guessed that by this summer our news organizations would have returned to a steady diet of the trashy and the sensational -- with Michael Skakel standing in for Gary Condit; hyperventilating stories on the rash of child abductions (which are actually on the decline) taking the place of shark attacks; and Little League players who are ineligible because they live in the wrong town filling the void left by Little League players who are ineligible because they are too old? Or that when our TV screens weren't filled with this lowest-common-denominator pabulum, the media would be devoting itself to scaring the bejesus out of us with endless showings of al-Qaida baddies gassing defenseless dogs?
Not long after Sept. 12, the complex and still-evolving story of the heroism and valiant deaths of the passengers on Flight 93, the firefighters of Ladder Company 5, and all the other 9/11 heroes was reduced by our national explainers to a tableau of hypothetical action-movie moments. No praise is too great for the many heroes of that day who reminded us all that real role models aren't multimillionaire athletes or pampered rock stars but ordinary folks who do extraordinary things. But shouldn't we be focusing on how they can inspire us to action instead of just wallowing in sentimental commemoration? Unless the network suits prefer us as couch-bound voyeurs rather than out-and-about volunteers. Funny how you have less time to watch "Reba" when your life is jampacked with purpose and mission.
And does anyone doubt that the thousands of people who lined up or opened their wallets to help on Sept. 12 would be shocked to learn that, after the initial outpouring of generosity, volunteerism in America has returned to pre-9/11 levels and charitable giving has actually fallen? That blood banks are once again bone dry? That only 10 percent of Americans are donating more of their time and effort to helping others than before the attacks? And that the Citizens Service Act, which was championed with much fanfare by the president, and which would significantly expand service programs, is going nowhere on the Hill?
There is no more disturbing indicator of the limited shelf life of the public's commitment to make whatever sacrifices are necessary to win the war on terror than the 12 percent increase in sales of luxury SUVs this year. Think of that: a 12 percent increase in vehicles that virtually guarantee our continued inability to thumb our noses at oily Persian Gulf potentates.
Of course, the car-buying public was only following the example of our political leaders who passed up a perfect chance to make a real difference when, led by the White House, they killed a bill that would have increased fuel efficiency standards and, thereby, saved about 2.5 million barrels of oil a day -- roughly the amount we currently import from the Middle East.
In the days and weeks following Sept. 11, our leaders did everything in their power to convince us that the best way to do our part in the fight against terrorism was to return as quickly as possible to our normal lives. Regrettably they got their wish.
Maybe we can use the occasion of this other anniversary -- that of 9/12 -- to renew the values and spirit that came to the fore that day. It would be the greatest tribute we could pay to the victims of 9/11.