Much of the nation this week is focused on remembering Sept. 11, 2001 — where people were, what they were doing and how the day changed things.
I'd like to focus on Sept. 10, instead.
The way a nation acts before a crisis can teach us as much as the way it acts after.
Sept. 10 was a sunny day in the mid-80s at Salt Lake International Airport, where passengers and non-traveling friends alike made quick trips through metal detectors and down to the gates. But my intent here isn't just to conjure nostalgic images.
If you turned on a cable news station that day, you were bound to hear endless chatter about one of two things — Gary Condit or shark attacks.
The shark story was beginning to wane with the summer sun. It never had much substance. It began with the gripping tragedy of a young boy whose arm was severed and whose uncle wrestled the offending shark to shore and recovered the arm. By September, every shark attack in the world had gotten sufficient attention to make us think a band of marauding sea creatures had held secret meetings and decided to strike humans in record numbers.
In reality, shark attacks that year were fairly close to normal.
Condit was a California congressman who had an affair with Chandra Levy, an intern 30 years his junior. She had mysteriously disappeared. Unfortunately, a lot of young women disappear each year, but the nation was obsessed with her because of the affair, Condit's position of power and a video of Condit in 1998 demanding President Bill Clinton come clean about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky.
Condit never was a suspect, other than by inference on television. Someone else entirely was convicted of Levy's murder nine years later. But to many, the congressman and the missing intern lover seemed so important.
That all changed when passenger planes rained from the skies and immovable skyscrapers fell like card houses in a wind. So did concerns in Utah about political redistricting and a Newsweek cover story titled, "A Mormon Moment."
On Sept. 10, you had to look hard to find the most important story of the day, and you wouldn't have recognized it if you saw it. In the Deseret News it ran on Page A4, a short story about how Afghanistan's Taliban rulers were keeping Western diplomats away from eight foreign aid workers who had been arrested for promoting Christianity.
This isn't just about the spiritual aspects of tragedies and how they force humans to instantly focus with laser clarity on matters of more lasting importance. It's also about how a nation can become so obsessed with looking inward that it ignores the larger world, like a family that thinks a crime wave down the street will never hit home.
Americans tend to do this until the world blows up on their doorstep. In part, this is because of geographic isolation. In part, it is because our military and culture walk as giants on the earth. Squabbling Taliban leaders were distant oddballs who might as well have been on another planet.
The same was true of Japan on Dec. 6, 1941, when many Americans argued in favor of strict neutrality in a war that was swallowing the earth like a tsunami.
Today, with two active post-9/11 wars still underway, we know better — or do we?8 comments on this story
Last week the nation was focused on whether the president could finish a major speech in time for the NFL season kickoff. Politicians seemed on the verge of cutting funds to the U.S. Agency for International Development — the agency that, among other things, helps fledgling democracies.
The Arab Spring is a story that comes and goes like a familiar commercial. Europe's economic collapse is an irritant that keeps snagging our own stock market. Meanwhile, the spiritual focus of a decade ago is out of sight on the receding horizon.
On Sept. 10, we thought the earth was big enough that the things growing in its darkest recesses could not reach us or destroy our entertainment. We can't afford to make that mistake again.