Ten is a magic number to us humans. Round numbers, numbers that end in zero, have a special meaning to us. They represent an increase in the number of digits. Literally, the difference between nine and ten is exactly the same as that between eight and nine. Indeed, in one sense, it’s actually less of a difference — the percentage of change is less.
The reason for the number ten is easier to explain. We use a base ten number system, most likely based on the number of fingers nearly all of us have. If The Simpsons had invented our number system, it would go 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 10, 11, 12. But they both mean exactly the same thing: . . . . . . . . . .
This is the tenth anniversary of the terrorist attacks by Al Qaeda on America that claimed so many innocent lives and brought the “War On Terror” home to us. 3,652 since that terrible, beautiful day when the plot of so many fiction writers came to horrifying life (and death) as airliners — hollow tubes filled with people, hurtling through the air at hundreds of miles an hours — became weapons, aluminum daggers and flying firebombs aimed at our nation’s soul.
I still feel the fear, the rage, the shock, and above all the helplessness of that terrible, beautiful morning. And as is my wont, when I need to distance myself from an event, I reduce it to numbers.
3,652 days. 19 terrorists. Four airliners. Flights 11, 77, 93, and 175. 2,977 innocents killed. 102 minutes from the first plane hit the World Trade Center and the last tower fell.
We want to round those numbers off. Nearly 3,000 people killed, 100 minutes from start to finish. We do this because round numbers have their magic; they indicate that it’s not quite reality, but an approximation. As odd as it sounds, adding 23 to the death toll makes it a bit easier to accept. 3,000 people is an abstract concept.
But the 2,977 people who died in New York City, in a field in Pennsylvania, and at the Pentagon weren’t abstracts, they were real people. And we need to remember that.
And the attacks didn’t take 100 minutes. The terrorists were tremendously successful, but they were not that precise. Their first attacks were 17 minutes apart, and the third was 34 minutes after the second. And they failed in their fourth attempt, as the passengers on that plane realized that they were not hostages and did such a quintessentially American thing — they fought back, and thwarted the terrorists’ plans — but at a terrible price to themselves.
So many people say the world changed that beautiful, terrible morning. But it didn’t. The world barely noticed. It still rotates on its axis in just over 24 hours. It still takes 365 days and a few hours to go around the sun. The seasons still come and go and come and go, utterly oblivious to our petty concerns.
No, what changed that beautiful, terrible morning was us. All of us. And our perception of not the world, but our perception of the world. Of the world we all create and believe in together. In that brief moment, we all came face to face with hatred and evil that we could not ignore, we could not wish away, we could not bargain with or negotiate or flee.
Our world has much changed since then. We are all a bit older. Some of us even wiser, many more of us sadly not. The ones who carried out that attack never survived to face justice — by their own design, as they eagerly gave their lives to carry out the attack. So many of those who aided and supported them are dead or imprisoned, as well as many of their heirs. Once again the world has been reminded — starkly — that America is a nation of tremendous strength — more powerful by far than any other nation in history. But that strength is only restrained by our national will and our national conscience.
On this day, another bright, sunny, cool day much like that beautiful, terrible Tuesday, I’m going to leave my television and radio off as much as I can. I’m going to go out, and appreciate the day as best I can. I’m going to consciously avoid the anger and fear and rage and helplessness that still haunts me to this day, and instead find things to appreciate and enjoy and celebrate this day.
I have spent ten years keeping the memory of that day in my heart. And tomorrow, I will let it back in. But on this one day, I will do my best to go back to what some call “the pre-9/11 world” and remember what it was like to live in a state of innocence.