Monday, September 13, 2010

Most of us know where we were and what we were doing on September 11, 2001. At least most Americans do.

I was at work in Chicago. More specifically, I was in a managers' meeting with a video-conference hook-up to our New York office, located two blocks from the World Trade Center. As we were getting ready to start the meeting, the manager of the New York office asked if we heard the news reports that a plane had crashed into one of the Twin Towers. Then a few minutes later he told us that his building was being evacuated, and he left abruptly.

All of our New York employees escaped physical injury, although it was months before the space was usable again. One of our board members was among the casualties, as was Windows on the World--at the top of one of the towers--where we held our New York board meetings. (I got stuck in an elevator on the way up there once.) But in spite of all the human casualties, it could have been a lot worse. It is truly amazing how many people got out safely.

Why was 9/11 such an emotional event? Yes, we lost approximately 3,000 lives (including the deaths at the Pentagon and on the four airplanes), and that is indeed a tragedy.* But everyone dies, and many deaths are unexpected. According to the Department of Transportation, 37,261 people died in traffic accidents in 2008. That's over 100 deaths EVERY DAY. And be grateful you don't live in Iraq or Afghanistan, where death is a way of life.

So why was 9/11 such an emotional event? Because we lost our sense of security. We thought we were invincible within our own borders. We hadn't seen such aggression on U.S. land since Pearl Harbor, which had the same emotional impact because we had been sitting in our own territory and minding our own business.

It wasn't always that way.

On our vacation, Roland and I visited three forts on the Mississippi River. We started at Fort D, located in downtown Cape Girardeau, Missouri. Fort D is one of four Union forts built to protect the city during the Civil War. The biggest enemy its opponents fought was boredom because the only battle in the area occurred west of the city. But the country knew that it was vulnerable within its borders, and it was prepared.

Fort Kaskaskia is one of two forts near Chester, Illinois on the other side of the river. The fort was made of earthworks and wood, so all that is left are mounds where earthen walls used to be. Fort Kaskaskia was occupied from 1703-1763 by the French, then by the British until the Revolutionaries captured it in 1778, and it was last used in the War of 1812 (by the Americans).

Our final stop was Fort de Chartres, pictured above. This fort had a long history of French occupation during the days when France claimed the territory, but the French surrendered the fort (and the Illinois territory) to Great Britain in the mid 1760s. Great Britain abandoned the fort in 1771, and the Americans never used it.

As the very existence of these forts shows, Americans (and their predecessors in this land) have not always felt invincible. Once upon a time, we realized that we were in danger from all sides, and we learned to prepare for it and deal with it when it came. Yes, there were surprises, but they did not affect us as Pearl Harbor or 9/11 did.

My point?

America's greatest vulnerability is its conviction that it is not vulnerable.

* According to the 9/11 Commission Report, more than 2,600 people died at the World Trade Center, 125 died at the Pentagon, and 256 died on the four airplanes.

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