I remember a dream of an airplane, falling sharply through the sky. I remember carts barrelling down the aisles and the floor falling sharply beneath me. I remember the screaming.
It was the night of 10 September 2001.
The following night, I understood what the dream meant.
I remember the phone call from a friend that night, claiming a plane had struck the World Trade Center. I remember turning on the television to see the Twin Towers burning, the news casters frantic rehashing of events halfway across the globe, repeating them every few minutes. I remember the face of Satan in the smoke.
I remember the fall.
I remember the smiles, the laughter and the cheers of many people who had seen the collapse of the towers. This was my first brush with naked evil, and my first encounter with those who wish nothing more than to watch the world burn.
It’s been 16 years since then. A lifetime. There is an entire generation of children who have never seen the Towers fall, but have lived with the consequences. A decade and a half of war, fathers and mothers leaving home for war and returning crippled or in coffins, regular reminders of terrorism and national security threats, the steady erosion of necessary liberties for temporary security.
To the generation after theirs, 9/11 would be something they read in history books or learn from their parents. They will never experience the consequences of that day, only the second- and third- and fourth-order effects. When the day comes, what should I tell my children?
I was born in the shadow of a nuclear apocalypse. The United States and the Soviet Union were locked in a generations-long cold war, every word and gesture backed with enough nuclear weapons to destroy the world several times over. A few years later, the Soviet Union suddenly ceased to exist.
My generation was promised a brave new world and the end of history. We merely enjoyed a brief respite before the war of our generation crashed into every television, every computer and every radio in the world.
While a War on Terror beats nuclear annihilation, it demands a new way of living, a new way of thinking, and the recognition that things never become better all by themselves — we must make them so, or hurtle into the abyss.
Being born in Singapore, I was sheltered from the shock. 9/11 was a tragedy, but not a personal one. None who died were my countrymen, much less people I know. We never had to go to war—though we were, and still are, targeted by terrorists. I could have been born in America and experienced far greater loss; I could have been born in Afghanistan, and forced to choose between the Taliban and the West.
There but for the grace of God go I.
The psychic wounds have healed over, faded to shallow scars. The rage, the grief, the horror, they have bled out long ago, leaving little more than a cyst of sorrow. Now that I am a man, I have shouldered greater responsibilities, and prepare myself for greater ones still.
Now, not so long after 9/11, there are new challenges. The never-ending War on Terror. The culture war between the social justice warriors and those who would face them. The Control-Left versus the Alt-Right. The clash of civilizations—not just between Islam and the West, but between everybody and everybody else. Corporations who arrogate to themselves the power to decide what speech is acceptable on social media. Governments who use all number of excuses to shore up their own power and take away everybody else’s rights. I have no doubt that my children will face challenges of their own.
What shall I teach them?
I will teach them of the boundless resilience of the human spirit and the breadth of the human heart. That sovereigns come and go, but ethics endures through the ages. That kith and kin matter more than the political fads of the day. That evil must be met with courage and righteousness and that all lies are sundered by the truth. That rulers and bandwagons must always be watched with a suspicious eye. That the triumph of evil comes simply from silence, but the triumph of good demands unbending virtue lived day after day. That they are the latest link in an unbroken chain stretching into the mists of antiquity, each generation building upon the achievements of the last, that for civilization to endure they themselves must be ready and able to bow their backs to the task and lay the groundwork for the glories of the next age.
Most of all, I will teach them to remember.
Cover image by Chris Schiffner.