It’s a month past the 20th anniversary of the September 11th terror attacks, and I’m still kind of wallowing in it. I have no personal connection to anyone who perished or even had a close call that day, and yet every year as an American, I feel the anniversary deeply. I was a very naive 24-year-old that day, and each year I become her again as the shock and grief washes over me. Every year as tribute, I read September 11th books and watch documentaries, and a month later, I’m still reading. For some reason, I am not yet ready to move on this year.
One phrase I’ve heard and read over and over this year about the attacks is that the U.S. was unprepared because of a “failure of imagination.” We could not imagine that terrorists would ever learn to fly passenger jets and hijack them for the sole purpose of crashing them in a murderous suicide mission. Hijackings before that went like this: terrorist holds passengers hostage and forces pilot to land at a nearby airport. He holds them on the plane while he negotiates his demands. He gets what he wants, flees, and the passengers and crew are let off the plane safely.
We couldn’t imagine a hijacking ending any other way. Failure of imagination. This is evidenced in the question I asked a woman in my office that beautiful, tragic morning when she told me that terrorists had hijacked a plane and flown it into the World Trade Center. I gasped and said, “Did they let the people off first?”
Because they always let the people off in hijackings, right?
She slowly, sadly shook her had at me in response.
I began to cry. Failure of imagination, innocence lost.
Fast forward twenty years. We are facing another crisis as a country, not only as a country, but as an entire world. As the human race. Once again, I have been blindsided by my failure of imagination.
When the pandemic began, I could not imagine that we would not all follow public health guidelines. I could not imagine that we would not all come together to try to defeat this virus. I could not imagine that many of us would put our “personal liberties” above our collective health.
I couldn’t imagine my fellow Christians using the Bible, twisting it actually, to support actions that clearly flout Christ’s second-most important command: “Love thy neighbor as thyself,” by refusing to wear masks or making up false religious exemptions to get out of doing so. I couldn’t imagine anyone refusing a life-saving vaccine and taking their chances on a deadly disease. I couldn’t imagine parents abusing school board members and citizens sending death threats to the spouses and children of physicians making public health recommendations and politicians enforcing them.
I couldn’t imagine someone spurning the life-saving cautions and vaccines, and then getting COVID and dying or suffering greatly, then they (if they survived) or their families refusing to ever admit they were wrong and refusing to use their awful, tragic experience to save someone else’s life.
Failure of imagination.
We came together after September 11, 2001. We worked to help those in need and protect from further harm. Twenty years later we have failed to protect each other on a grand, sinful scale.
Pursuit of personal liberty over public health doesn’t seem as evil as terrorism on the surface. In fact, I don’t believe that wanting to be mask-free or not take a vaccine is inherently murderous or mal-intentioned.
But look at the toll.
2,977 people were killed on September 11, 2001 in the span of about 100 minutes. In the month of August 2021, when all adults and kids over 12 were long eligible to have been safely vaccinated, roughly that many people died in the U.S. of COVID, a preventable disease, every four days. Over 22,000 Americans in one month.
And we could’ve stopped it, if we wanted to.
But we didn’t want to.
And that is something that, even though I am living it, I still fail to be able to imagine.