By J.F. McKenna
Terrorism came to our front door. It didn’t knock. It tore off the front porch.
It was the truest lead I had ever written. It focused on the worst day Americans had endured since Pearl Harbor. During that nightmarish time, it was as precise a depiction as I could fashion. Yet it could reflect only the surface of the horror, anger and resolve planted in the nation the day before.
Editor Sara Kalman had rushed into my office at the magazine that September Tuesday. “Come into the conference room — quick,” she said. I came upon a room of editors huddled over the office television. We joined the rest of the world as witnesses. The following morning, a deadline day, I was impelled to say something in print, to express the consensus building in my part of the business world.
As I write from my corner, the television continues to flicker with images of the carnage from the Pentagon, a Pennsylvania glade and New York’s World Trade Center. The person or persons responsible didn’t stop your production run or cause you to miss the next day’s set-ups. That’s because the person or persons unknown missed you. Instead, they attacked your neighbors.
More facts about the cowardice became known. Our world view shed a few more layers of naiveté. Our anger transformed into a pledge. Our understanding as world citizens and international traders found new dimensions, as I predicted they would in an October 2001 column.
This latest and imported terror, this act of war staggers us all not merely because of the magnitude but because of the meaning. We are indeed a global economy in every sense. And a product we have never wanted has reached our borders. It’s time for us all to acknowledge that fact in earnest. It is time for all of us…to tell the exporters of death that this will not stand.
The president spoke for each one of us when he said: “Terrorist attacks can shake the foundations of our biggest buildings, but they cannot touch the foundation of America. These acts shatter steel, but they cannot dent the steel of American resolve. America was targeted for attack because we’re the brightest beacon for freedom and opportunity in the world. And no one will keep that light from shining.”
This won’t stand.
Ten years later, America tallies the costs. U.S. boots on the ground in foreign lands. Wounded and fallen warriors. Bin Laden dead, but his poison still spreading across the world. A once unimagined matrix of domestic security. Ours is the 9/11 + 10 America — facing unprecedented economic challenges, seeking sensible policies amid political nostrums and reexamining the metallurgy behind our steely 9/11 resolve.
The question we ask today, what are we still willing to stand for?
This is not really a new question at all. Earlier American generations have asked it as well. Each answer has ushered in different results, and has established new directions toward the same democratic goal: the breaking of political bonds, the creation of a wholly unique republican genius, the emergence of unmatched industrial power, the self-correction of national errors, the acknowledgement that the tools of national renewal are always at hand.
John Steinbeck, writing in the final installment of his so-called moral trilogy, reframed that question a generation ago. “How,’ he wrote, “will the Americans act and react to a new set of circumstances for which new rules must be made?”
America and Americans was written during the era of Vietnam and urban riots. “I am not young,” Steinbeck conceded, “and yet I wonder about my tomorrow…. A dying people tolerates the present, rejects the future and finds its satisfactions in past greatness and half-remembered glory. A dying people arms itself with defensive weapons and with mercenaries against change. When greatness recedes, so does belief in greatness.”
Steinbeck, however, refused to render his report without including an accompanying analysis: “It is in the American negation of…symptoms of negation that my hope and confidence lie….I believe that our history, our experience in America, has endowed us for the change that is coming.”
Speaking for and to a nation he wouldn’t live to see, Steinbeck wrote: “Perhaps my questioning is compounded of some fear, more hope and great confidence.”
We are 10 years removed from the initial horrors of 9/11 — and yet as immediately affected by those horrors as if the smoke were still rising from the fallen towers and the crashed planes. We are left to construct our 2011 answer to the question “What are we, as Americans, willing to stand for?”
J.F. McKenna is a veteran business journalist and communications specialist. In 2001, he was editor in chief of the manufacturing magazine Tooling & Production. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org .