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The Globe and Mail

What I learned from 9/11 - and what it's still teaching me

Every year for the past decade, I have had a ritual that some might find morbid: On Sept. 11, I watch the original television coverage of the Twin Tower attacks on YouTube, shuddering at the black smoke billowing out of the buildings and what it brought.

Each time, immediately after the first plane strikes the north tower, I marvel at how little the announcers – and of course we at home – knew. An age of innocence lasting but a few minutes. It was a small plane, then a large plane, then two planes, then two more. It was an accident, then an air traffic control mistake, then a deliberate attack, then a war.

On that beautiful September morning I didn't know – how could I? – that one of our dear friends had lost her older brother in the attacks. I didn't know our children would grow up in the shadow of these terrorist attacks, and that they would take for granted what many of us are still pretty shocked by – a world permeated by fear and intrusive security measures.

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On that morning, as astounded anchors and announcers, who despite uttering a few "good Gods!" were remarkably composed and responsible, fumbled toward understanding and explanation, most of us were unwillingly watching our most memorable and terrifying home movie ever. In the aftermath, we embarked on a journey of shock and fear and grief so great that it set off, as The New Yorker's David Remnick recently wrote, "a terrible roaring in the mind ...."

In the days that followed we were told that nothing would ever be the same again. I still believe that is true. I believe 9/11 lives on in all of us who were sentient that day.

Our vocabulary changed. Here are just a few words and phrases I never used before that day that have became staples of our conversation this past decade: embed, WMD, jihadism, anthrax, homeland security, terror alert, let's roll, al-Qaeda, Osama bin Laden, ground zero, Islamism, we got him, Gitmo, waterboarding, shock and awe, Abu Ghraib, Kabul, rendition, green zone, we have some planes, Highway of Heroes.

Because of that day we now trudge to the airport hours before an international flight and submit to increasingly irrational and uncivil security measures, sometimes taking off our shoes, sometimes enduring pat downs and body scans. We look at other passengers a little more suspiciously.

Since 9/11 I have never flown, or worse, seen a loved one off, without thinking, "it" could happen again. Does this take a toll on the psyche? If you see something, say something. But what? I see a lot of strange people doing strange things at airports. It was ever thus. Now though, as Pico Iyer writes in a Granta magazine issue devoted to the 10th anniversary of 9/11, airports are places where, regardless of race, creed or colour, "everyone may be taken to be guilty until proven innocent."

Since 9/11, I regard the Toronto skyline differently and think, what would it look like if attacks happened here?

And since 9/11, like most people who see themselves as tolerant and progressive, I have looked at certain strangers differently and then gotten mad at myself for racial profiling. And then looked again and wondered, what if?

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We lost a lot that day. I know someone who gave up religion. All faiths seemed extreme to him in the aftermath, with those who killed in the name of faith, those who blamed in the name of faith.

One day this week, when I opened my window shades in the morning, I saw a neighbour walking her dog, the same woman who had rushed by me, almost crying 10 years ago, telling me she was hurrying to pick up her kids from school because "they were shooting planes down from the sky."

I had an urge to run out and ask her, a decade later, if she remembered her hysteria, but then thought better of it. Even then, I thought she had it overblown and wrong.

But she was scared, and just as the World Wars changed the emotional, physical and political landscape forever, so did this day. It ushered in a new kind of fear.

In the snazzily packaged media coverage of this 10th anniversary, many may be tempted to take a pass. Why relive all that angst again? What more can we possibly learn?

I think there is much to glean from the anniversary coverage, which I have been absorbing selectively. (One night this week I stayed up late to watch a CNN special and then shook my head at the irony of a commercial running throughout the program for something called Funeral Advantage.)

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We can learn about the emotional costs of survival for those directly affected by the attacks, the need for resilience and just the simple banality of carrying on. We can – and should – continue to mercilessly examine the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and whether they were worth the cost and carnage. We can restate how precious our civil liberties are.

We can also try to absorb the lessons of humility; in the end, the Arab Spring may have weakened al-Qaeda more than the Navy Seals.

For me, this 10th anniversary of 9/11 is a turning point. Next year at this time, I will have said good-bye to that ritual. At least that's what I'm hoping.

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