Ten Years and a Thousand Miles

According to Mapquest, my office on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus lies 937 miles west of Ground Zero, 846 miles northwest of the Pentagon, and 840 miles from the crash site of Flight 93 in Pennsylvania. Ten years and nearly a thousand miles away seems so far in space and time. So while I was counting years and miles, I assembled some numbers to give clarity to my own connection to a somber anniversary.

Ten years ago we often heard that the September 11 attacks, which claimed 2,977 victims, brought Americans together as a nation. We gathered, we prayed, and we wept. We didn’t know how else to help, so we waited in lines to donate blood. (The Journal of the American Medical Association reported a 2- to 3-fold increase in donations in the first week after the attacks.) We bought American flags. (The dollar value of imported U.S. flags peaked at $51.7 million in 2001, up from $747,800 the previous year, according to the Flag Manufacturers Association of America). We stood overwhelmingly behind our president. (Gallup polls show that George Bush’s approval rating spiked–from 51% to 90%–in the weeks following September 11.)

Since then, presidential approval ratings have never equaled 2001 levels. President Bush’s ratings dipped to a low of 25%, while his successor Barack Obama’s high and low are 69% and 38%, respectively. This year Congress’ approval rating bottomed-out at 13% twice.  Americans are cynics when it comes to media bias and news stories, too:  Pew Research Center reported in 2009 that “just 29% of Americans say that news organizations generally get the facts straight,”  a two-decade low.

As of last month, 6,230 American servicemembers have died in the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and related conflicts around the world. This is according to USA Today’s website, which had the most recent tally I could find. Reports on the number of civilian casualties in Iraq vary widely, but estimates I found begin at around 100,000 deaths since 2003. Pinning down the number of casualties in Afghanistan is a more dizzying exercise, with no single official figure in existence. I can credibly report that thousands of Afghans have died since 2001 as a result of war in their country.

Of the American casualties, 115 soldiers came from Wisconsin. As a university employee, I get email alerts from the governor’s office regarding the status of the state flag. I estimate I’ve received 17 of these solemn messages in my tenure as PortalWisconsin.org’s project manager. They inform me when flags at the Capitol are flown at half-staff, as a mark of respect for a Wisconsin citizen who died serving his or her country.

Here is the story of one:

And here are the faces of many.

More personally, two of my family members served in Operation Iraqi Freedom. One of them returned home, safe and sound.

******

I’ve lost track of how many times in these ten years I’ve watched video of the towers falling, but seeing the smoke, the rubble and the bodies never fails to put a lump in my throat. Yesterday my 14-year-old son watched television coverage of the September 11th terrorist attacks at his school–from the initial impact of American Airlines Flight 11 at the north tower to its stunning collapse. Remarkably,  it was the first time he’d viewed the footage, and the experience clearly moved him. The conversation between us last night comforted me: my son, alert, compassionate, and somehow able to put 9/11 into the context of tragedy everywhere; and me, struggling to make sense of the numbers swirling in my head. Maybe we all need to listen more closely to the kids.

******

This weekend in Wisconsin, communities are offering numerous opportunities to gather in observance of the September 11 attacks. I counted 18 on PortalWisconsin.org’s calendar alone. Wisconsin Public Television and Wisconsin Public Radio will broadcast performances and ceremonies throughout the day; if you’d prefer to gather, please see what we have listed for your area.

One event I recommend is the Wisconsin Academy of Science, Arts and Letters’ Perspectives on a Post 9/11 World, taking place all Sunday afternoon at the Overture Center for the Arts in Madison (video of the talks will be available online at a later date). The Wisconsin Academy has a reputation for presenting clear-headed, nonpartisan public discourse around issues important to Wisconsin residents. Its series of three free public talks on Sunday will address U.S. military operations since 9/11, attitudes towards Islam and American citizenship, and how art can help us understand tragedy.

I’m especially looking forward to what the artists have to say.

–Tammy Kempfert

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