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Jewish World Review Sept. 11, 2002 / 5 Tishrei, 5763

Bob Greene

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The first day of the rest
of America's life? | There was that cloyingly sweet or stirringly inspirational (take your pick) saying that adorned a million posters and wall hangings:

"Today is the first day of the rest of your life."

The converse of that, on a national scale -- the twisted-around-and in-through-the-side-door version of that -- is about to be upon us. It will arrive Wednesday.

Sept. 11, 2002 is finally here - today is going to be the first day of the rest of America's life, but, perhaps more significantly, it is the last day of another life.

It's the last day of the nation's life that began the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. Ever since that day -- understandably -- there has been this vague pointing toward the year-later morning that will arrive on Wednesday. Sometime this peering-toward-September has been verbalized; more often it has not. But it has been a constant presence -- something close to hope.

Why? Because the muted assumption has been that once Sept. 11 comes around again, once that date passes and nothing deadly happens, then we can move on. When -- if -- we make it past Sept. 11 without another attack, we will have faced our terrors, and can put those terrors in storage.

The first day of the rest of America's life. No one is using those words, but that is the feeling.

If only it were so.

What will happen today -- after the somber ceremonies, after the candle lightings, after the all-day television coverage, after the appearances by President Bush -- is that the day will end, most likely peacefully. Then, on tomorrow, the sun will rise, and . . .


That's the question. Because we will still be at war (or at least we will still be in the state that we have come, in the last year, to define as war). We will still not quite know for certain who our enemies are. Our airports will feel no safer than they do this morning; our public buildings will remain in the state of languid lockdown they have been for the last 12 months. The first day of the rest of our lives won't feel like a new beginning at all -- because it won't be. That day -- Thursday, Sept. 12, 2002 -- will likely provide little relief.

It's difficult to blame ourselves for yearning. It would be wonderful if Wednesday could be a day not just for mourning, but for an official end to mourning; it would be wonderful if Wednesday really could be an end and a beginning. That's how we would plot it if we were writing a script; that's how we would tie up the final act. Send the audience home with hearts singing.

We're not writing the script.

That has been the whole, vertiginous, controlling core of this story since last September. We had nothing to do with the composition of the first act, and -- for all of our efforts to safeguard ourselves in the 12 months since -- we have had little to do with the composition of the subsequent acts. Our firefighters, police officers and emergency workers were courageous beyond words in the hours and days after the attacks a year ago; our soldiers, sailors and aviators have disrupted their entire lives for us in an effort to go after the people who killed our, and their, fellow citizens.

And yet there is the lingering feeling that we are not the authors of this drama; there is the disorienting, maddening feeling that though we tell ourselves we have taken over center stage, we are out in the audience, not wanting to be there, but in the seats because we as a nation are by definition spectators as much as we are principals. We would not have it this way, if the choice were our nation's to make, but the choice wasn't. We were assailed out of nowhere, and ever since that morning it is as if we have been waiting for what is next. Not just the citizens, but the Congress, the armed forces, even the president himself. We hate it -- we hate this feeling -- but there seems to be no acceptable alternative. Each day of no new attack feels, if not like a victory, then like a sentence deferred.

Peacefulness feels different -- peacefulness feels not like the natural state of things, but like a stay. That's what last Sept. 11 did to us -- it dampened down our expectations. What, a year ago, was taken almost as our birthright -- 24 hours each day as a country not being wounded -- now feels like a pallid gift bestowed in increments for one more day of wary endurance. We hate it -- but we can't change it.

Today is the first day of the rest of your life. Those words had such appeal to so many people because they sounded, at the same time, like a promise and a reprieve. The promise was for what lay ahead: endless opportunity. The reprieve was for what had gone before. Today is the first day of the rest of your life: a full pardon, and an open-ended ticket.

If only. If only. Tomorrow America will awaken to a September dawn, and another Sept. 11 will have come and gone. It won't have been a finish line. If only.

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JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. His latest book is Once Upon a Town: The Miracle of the North Platte Canteen. (Sales help fund JWR). Comment by clicking here.

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