The “Falling Man” was one of your fellow citizens. On this day 20 years ago he was an office worker, probably settling in to his cubicle when evil men attacked him simply because he was an American. He survived the initial explosion, but could not escape the building. This man, who was probably very much like you and your friends and neighbors, faced the choice of burning to death or jumping to the street below. He jumped, and for the rest of my life I will never, ever forget the sick feeling of rage I felt as I watched this man and others jump to their deaths. This should disturb you. It should make you furious.
“Never forget” means we must truly understand, accept, and remember we are engaged in a struggle that we cannot simply wish away. There are people from multiple ideologies and movements out there who want to kill you, or otherwise subvert or subjugate you and your interests to theirs. In my childhood it was the evil ideology of global Communism. As I became a man the most clear and present danger shifted to radical Al Qaeda and ISIL terrorists killing civilians and eventually seizing entire swaths of the Middle East. Now we face a new kind of Cold War from our near peers using information and economic warfare that capitalizes on the openness and liberties that make us simultaneously strong and vulnerable. There are many other possible dangers we face. Do we remember that? Or do we forget? What we are to never forget is that human existence itself is a struggle for survival, and competition between groups is inevitable. That competition will often prove violent.
As the late, great Dr. William Aprill said regarding those who would harm us, “Neither your understanding nor your consent is required…” for them to follow through on their goals. Whether or not we are at war with them, they are at war with us. We must never forget that there are others who want to take from us, diminish us, supplant us, destroy us. The lesson of 9/11 is to remain vigilant and pay attention to those warning signs.
That doesn’t require a perpetual war-footing, or constant belligerence and paranoia. However, we must avoid the self-delusion and national security complacency and incompetence that jeopardized so many of our citizens on that fateful day 20 years ago. We must keep a close eye on our executive leaders and national defense apparatus. We must demand through our representatives a prudent allocation of our budgetary and training resources for defense, making foreign intelligence gathering and war-fighting capabilities our highest priority at all times. We must demand that our military leadership are held accountable for failure. We must pay attention to what is happening like mature and educated adults, so we might better recognize the kind of dangerous decline of our national institutions that leads to calamity as we have seen so many times before. We get the kind of performance we demand from our institutions, and therefore the performance we deserve. Let’s demand and prove worthy of better.
In their lifetimes, our elders have seen our nation attacked and thousands killed at Pearl Harbor by a foreign nation-state, and seen the same result in a radically different manner on 9/11 by a non-state actor. The next potential national calamity will in all likelihood be different from either of those, but we must never forget that violent competition over preeminence, resources, religion, or political power is, tragically, perhaps the most natural activity in which the human race can engage.
This is the way of the world as we have always known it. Whether religious extremists, near-peer nation states, or simple muggers and carjackers, the world contains no shortage of people who would take from us our lives, our liberty, and our prosperity to serve their own purposes. We cannot cover our eyes and pretend it is not happening. It is happening. It will always be happening.