There’s an old saw that the human body replaces every cell over a seven-year period. According to this apocryphal bit of wisdom, over that time each single cell in the human body will spawn its heir, then die off at some moment over that span of time. In essence, while we feel like the same person, there is not a single trace of the individual we were seven years ago.
There is a similar theme in American politics. Thanks to the 22nd Amendment to the United States Constitution, no president can serve more than two four-year terms (apart from some very bizarre and highly improbable circumstances). So, on a national level, we are guaranteed (for good or ill) a whole new government every eight years. It’s part of what makes the description of the American political system as “institutionalized revolution” so true.
Eight years ago, our current president was a largely unremarkable State Senator, largely unknown outside of Illinois.
Eight years ago, our current vice-president was a long-serving United States senator, best known for a failed presidential bid back in 1988.
In Congress, the Senate Majority Leader and Speaker of the House from that day have both left office. And the man who was Chief Justice has passed on.
We have had a complete turnover at the top of our government, with not only the people changing, but the reins of power passing to the hands of the opposition party, since that beautiful, terrible morning eight years ago today. And it all occurred peacefully, without a shot, without a single drop of blood spilled.
We have renewed ourselves over eight years. We have remade ourselves as a government.
Not because of that beautiful, terrible day. Not in spite of that terrible, beautiful day. But in complete and utter disregard of that beautiful, terrible day.
We were shaken to our very core on that beautiful, terrible day. We were all filled with fury and terror and dread and righteous rage and shock and a host of other emotions.
But we quickly adapted. We acclimated to the new world, and we resumed our lives. The “institutionalized revolution” spirit of our governance ensured that we’d be rattled for a bit, but we’d find our new balance.
This year, our president — that former state legislator — has suggested — gently — that it might be time to start moving away from clinging to the past. While we should never forget that beautiful, terrible day, and the thousands who were murdered on that day, perhaps it is time to shift the memorializing from the actual date of the event to a convenient weekend, like so many of our other holidays. Instead, this date should be used as a day of service — when we should focus on doing good, productive, charitable deeds in the memory of those who died.
It might indeed be time for that. It might be good for us to do that.
But I’m not ready.
I don’t want to let go of that terrible, beautiful day. I am not ready to focus on the deaths of those thousands of innocents and choose to do good deeds in their honor. I am not ready to focus on that they died, and I still need to cling to why they died. I am not prepared to focus on the tragedy of their deaths, but the motives behind their murders.
To me, their deaths were not a tragedy. They were an atrocity. They did not lose their lives — those lives were taken from them in a deliberate act of cruelty and hatred. And while those who killed them are dead, and so many of those who aided in that attack are also dead or imprisoned or on the run, there are still so many more who would do the same or more if they had the wherewithal — and they are striving to achieve that wherewithal.
Eight years. There are young people who can look at the New York skyline and not see the negative space, the gaping hole in the sky where two towers once stood. Once again, the tallest building is the Empire State Building, and it almost blends into the background of other skycrapers, nowhere near as dominant as the World Trade Center towers were.
I’m not ready to let go of that terrible, beautiful day. And I don’t know if I ever will.