Behind all the follow-ups on the victims, heroes, politicians of 9/11 being rolled out this week, behind the dedication of the somber memorial in downtown New York where the World Trade Center once stood, behind the private sharing in households and offices across the country of where we were "that day" is one collective and inescapable national question: Are we better? Ten years later, are we better?
Like many of my generation, who came of age in the Age of Terror, I had hoped to avoid this socially mandated pulse taking. Having lived in Manhattan on the day of the attacks, I had spent the first year after the attack internalizing and reacting to what we called "the new reality."
I moved to New Mexico with my then boyfriend, moved back to New York three months later with him and then broke up with him shortly thereafter. I spent hours and hours smoking with friends, discussing anthrax, George W. Bush and what exactly we were smelling when the smoke from Ground Zero blew uptown.
I blogged my thoughts, made videos, kept trying to find the right words to describe the burnt-sienna pile of matchsticks where I used to buy discount Broadway tickets and which now was being used as a rationale for war. I considered joining the military, if only they would have me.
Then came the year (was it the fourth or fifth anniversary?) when I didn't call the friends I had been with on 9/11 to catch up on that day. There seemed to be a fine line between honoring and remembering that day and being an "apocalypse junkie" who got off on going over the same cauterized memory again and again. Maybe it was healing.
Maybe it was a sense that everything that had happened since the attack had perverted it. What once stood in my mind as a moment where doctors, cabbies and strangers all brought out the best in their humanity to counter an act of inhumanity had become a cheap justification for a national panic attack we still haven't come out of.
Are we better? Forget applying that question to political America for a moment, since we all know that answer. Are we better as a people? Are you better as a person?
I was 22 when the towers fell and sometimes I play a mental parlor game of trying to decide which parts of me today are the results of 9/11 and which are simply part of becoming an adult. I've attributed everything from my love of bluegrass to my decision to leave New York for California to 9/11. I see in my friends and myself an ever-present anxiety and dread that might just be a youthful angst we'll outgrow in time, but it feels like more like our defining trait.
We're a generation facing joblessness, environmental devastation and national decline, fully aware that we're mostly powerless to do anything about it. That we don't riot in the streets is either testimony to our enduring faith in the power of perseverance, apathy to rival the Lost Generation or stupidity. It's probably a mix of all three.
Ten years on, it's hard to see the world as a better place, what with all the economic disparity and collapse, corporate malfeasance, political corruption and the disintegration and decay of our social and physical infrastructure.
But, if we're honest, ten years on, the world is a better place. Technology has interconnected the globe to such a degree that large-scale war seems untenable, if not unthinkable. In the Middle East ordinary people have shown uncommon valor standing up to the despots who have kept them trapped in the Dark Ages. Osama Bin Laden is dead and there hasn't been a major terrorist attack on U.S. soil in ten years.
Even the noisy, fractious and often infantile cacophony that substitutes for genuine political discourse in this country is preferable to the chilling unilateral silence that led to the torture, unnecessary war and attacks on civil liberties that occurred in the immediate wake of the World Trade Center attacks. It may not be better for the electorate's blood pressure, but it's unquestionably better for democracy.
Our nation and our species are in the midst of a great upheaval. People much smarter than I have outlined the way in which increasing technology, decreasing resources, growing population and the success of an interconnected global society are causing dramatic changes everywhere humanity calls home, but it's a truth we're all waking up to.
Far from cutting us off from the world, the attacks of 9/11 pushed us into the world, making us painfully aware that America's success -- or failure -- is tied to the success of failure of the world at large. Far from ushering in a new Middle Ages, Osama bin Laden has turned our attention to the future. It may be a terrifying and difficult future filled with sacrifice and hardship, but it's one that we have tentatively begun to address.
"Are we better?" really means, "Are we back to the way we were?" That's not an option for any of us. The yardstick by which we measure our nation or ourselves is not the world of September 10th, 2001. The lesson of 9/11 is that there is no yardstick; that we as individuals, as nations and as a species are off the map and entering new and uncharted territory. The road ahead is dim and the challenges are potentially great enough to destroy this thing we call "civilization." Our options are simple: We either change or die.
I can't answer if we are better in any meaningful way ten years on, but there's no question that we've changed -- and so long as we continue to embrace the experimental, noisy and often-foolhardy impulses that lead us to new ideas -- I think we stand a fighting chance. We may not be a better people, but we are a changed one.