It was all supposed to be different after 9/11. Everyone agreed that everything had changed. For a while, Democrats lay down with Republicans, France and America agreed on things, and non-New Yorkers didn’t think so poorly of the Big Apple.

It’s a shame everyone didn’t get together and figure out what, exactly, had changed about everything. The President seems to think that the Constitution changed, that it suddenly became a document granting tremendous power to the President, and virtually none to the other branches of government. The other branches seem still to wonder whether he was right about that.

The people responsible for keeping America safe seem to have decided that the problem before 9/11 was that we didn’t have enough troops in the Middle East, and that too many gels and liquids were getting onto planes. It looks like they’re getting a handle on that.

There are more than a few people, though, who thought that the immediate problem might have been al Qaeda, and that the broader problem was failed states which provide refuge for transnational terrorist groups, and potent recruiting grounds for those same groups. We generally agreed that invading Afghanistan was a good step in the path towards solving both problems. We hoped that the unprecedented global coalition that came together behind the fight against al Qaeda might just be a force for great good in that country. We even thought that coalition and newfound sense of purpose might be put to good use in other parts of the world where weak, corrupt governments left were giving terrorists and their sympathizers opportunities to wage war.

A few of those people even got suckered into thinking that the shift in focus from rebuilding Afghanistan to unbuilding Iraq might be part and parcel of that noble goal. Others went along because “everything changed,” which apparently means anything which was a bad idea earlier suddenly became wise (see also: torture, warrantless spying on American citizens).

In all of that, it’s easy to forget what started it all, to blissfully forget the tragedy and horror of that morning six years ago, the emotional swath it cut through each of us.

For weeks afterward, I found myself waking up from some unremembered dream on the verge of tears, and thinking “I’m sorry,” over and over again. What I was sorry for, I don’t know, and I don’t even know who the tears were for, in particular. Three thousand people died, and I watched it happen, helplessly, from 1500 miles away. Maybe I was sorry I couldn’t help them.

But the damage was much greater than 3000 lives, as great a price as that was. Someone punched a hole in New York City, the city I grew up in. I wasn’t there to protect it, and I wasn’t there to heal the wound. Other people were there, but in the end, it was clear that the wound couldn’t be fixed, that all that history had disappeared into a cloud of dust, along with so many lives.

The Twin Towers were never lovely, and never better loved than after they fell. For all that, they were beacons. Like Lady Liberty a few miles away, the Twin Towers proclaimed New York, and America, a land of opportunity, a place where people who reached for the sky were invited to give it their best shot.

Someone blew a hole in that promise six years ago, and a lot has leaked out. It’s time, I think, to stanch the flow.

Blind Hope by Son Volt from the album Wide Swing Tremolo (1998, 3:17).

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