James Castagnera: 9-11 and the Search for Meaning





[Jim Castagnera is a Philadelphia attorney and author, who writes a weekly newspaper column, “Attorney at Large.”]

Human beings need meaning. We seek it in events and mark it with anniversaries. This summer was especially meaningful for me. Events included the wedding of our son and the high school graduation of our daughter. With her now off to college, we’re empty-nesters for the first time in 22 years. As if that wasn’t enough, the summer marked my 25th year out of law school and in the Pennsylvania bar, and my 10th year in my current job.

Monday marked the 5th anniversary of the Nine/Eleven terrorist attacks. Maybe having five fingers on each hand and five toes on each foot explains why a 5th anniversary seems special. I don’t know. I do know that the airways were filled with memorial services, retrospectives, and “where were you when” features. For my generation, JFK’s 1963 assassination was our first “where were you when” event. For my daughter and son, Nine/Eleven is the first event to fit this category.

Kennedy’s killing and the September 11th attacks have some things in common, beyond the “where…when” phenomenon. Both have spawned a plethora of conspiracy theories and urban legends.

Kennedy’s Assassination: Oswald was a lone madman. No, he was the patsy in a CIA-driven coup. Wrong, he was Castro’s agent. Wrong again, he was KGB.

September 11, 2001: Israel knew of the impending attacks and told Jewish workers in the Trade Center to stay home that day. The two airliners could never have brought down those giant buildings; explosives were rigged inside them to do the job. Neo-Cons in the Bush administration perpetrated or permitted the attacks, because they needed a Pearl Harbor to secure public support for their Mid-East agenda.

“What If” theories abound around both events.

Kennedy’s Assassination: America would never have become embroiled in its ten-year Vietnam debacle had Kennedy lived. Kennedy would have been one of our great presidents. Wrong, Kennedy would be just a footnote, had he served two normal terms.

September 11, 2001: America would never have become embroiled in its (so far) 3.5-year Iraq debacle had the attacks been foiled.

“Time” magazine tells us this week that America’s response to Nine/Eleven has “reshaped the century.” An article in “Foreign Policy” magazine counters that September 11, 2001 was “The Day When Nothing Changed.” The author argues that the real sea change occurred in 1991, when the Soviet’s “Evil Empire” closed shop and the Cold War Ended. Nine/Eleven to this author is merely a symptom of the brave new world of American empire and the resistance the new Rome is bound to encounter.

What really has changed for average Americans… which is to say, for you and me? Getting on an airplane to anywhere is a major hassle. Gas is pricey. The evaporation of the Clinton budget-surplus, replaced by record deficits, is troubling, as I approach retirement age and hope for a little Social Security in my future. The creepy feeling that the Islamic “Professor Moriarty” or “Fu Manchu” is down in some deep Afghanistan cave plotting his next diabolical move has become a permanent itch on the back of my neck.

Speaking strictly for myself, all of the above lie on the perimeter of day-to-day existence. Thanks to all those annoying security measures, the family and I were able to travel safely to and from my son’s July wedding in Hamburg, Germany. When I commute, I keep the speedometer between 55 and 60, which has added an amazing five more miles per gallon. And if the Social Security fund is in jeopardy, due to budget deficits and other federal financial peccadilloes, the stock market is more than making up for it.

As for that ol’ creepy feeling on the back of my neck… speaking as a child of the fifties, who practiced “duck and cover” exercises in elementary school in anticipation of a Soviet nuclear first-strike, all I can say is “so what’s new?”

No, for me the meaning of life lies where I’ve always found it: in the “little” family events --- the weddings, the graduations, even the funerals --- that mark life’s endless cycle. Stone me for saying this, if you must… but for me, the 5th anniversary of Nine/Eleven doesn’t come close to matching this year’s 36th wedding anniversary for personal significance.


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