This is the first time I’ve decided to write a post about 9/11 (or 11/9 for my international readers) in the four or so years I’ve been writing this blog. There’s been reasons why I’ve avoided it over the years. For one, I watched much of the events of that day play out on live TV, and I have had little desire to relive those events over and over again. 9/11 was the “flashbulb memory” of my generation (the Millennials), much like JFK’s assassination was to young Baby Boomers or the Challenger disaster was to young Gen-Xers.
Today marks 20 years since that incredibly tragic morning that forever changed the course of history, opening a chapter that spanned four presidencies of both major parties that has only recently just ended. But I’m not going to get to that part just yet. I’m going to start with my own experience of that day…that late summer day in 2001, less than two weeks before that year’s autumnal equinox.
The morning of September 11th, 2001, started off like any normal morning. I was a fresh-faced 14-year-old (okay…actually, it was more like slightly acne-ridden and I had a smile that was almost ready to have the metal braces from my mouth removed…but I digress). I had just started my freshman year of high school a month earlier and was only just feeling like I had settled into a routine in this new environment that I was trying to navigate. (Where I’m from, 9th grade or “freshman year” is the first year of high school, so this was indeed a brand new school for me.) My English class was actually scheduled to meet with a group of exchange students that day, so I actually dressed nicely. I wore a sleeveless blue and green paisley dress and white wedge shoes that day. (I should mention at this point in my life I had only just begun some of the weight gain that would end up defining my teenage years, so I was actually of average size at the time.) Anyway, I went to school as usual that morning.
My first class of the day was actually a gym class, specifically tennis class (my high school offered physical education classes in specific sports that would count towards your P.E. credits on your diploma, and tennis was one of them). For my first class, which started around 7:30 that morning, I ended up dressing out into my P.E. uniform and went to class. Our classes were split into four 90-minute periods and the classes themselves would change every quarter (our grading periods were four quarters of nine weeks each), so my class ended around 9:00 that morning, and we’d go to the locker rooms to dress back into our street clothes about 10 minutes or so before the bell to end that class rang. So, right around the time the first plane hit the North Tower of the World Trade Center (8:46 am), I would have been getting ready to go back to the Girls Locker Room.
Now, I had absolutely no clue of what had just happened at that time, because this was 2001. This was before the age of smartphones and social media. Cell phones with internet capabilities were around at this time, but the phones were usually clamshell flip phones that charged by the minute how much data you used to go online. Text messaging was only just becoming a thing for teenagers, and schools would have normally outright banned the use of cell phones during school hours anyway (although if one’s parents were well off, they would sometimes let their kids carry a cell phone in case of emergencies). So, the way we would have found out about the events of that morning would be either by logging onto an actual computer (whose internet browser would probably have some sort of news site as its home page) or by turning on a TV.
I arrived at my second period class, Biology Honors. Now, at my high school, we had an actual TV Productions class, with a classroom that also functioned as a TV studio. There were a few levels of the TV Productions courses, and typically one of the advanced levels of the course was scheduled for the early periods, and they would produce and air the Pledge of Allegiance followed by the morning announcements. These announcements would air during the early minutes of second period over the school’s closed circuit TV system. Well, the announcements didn’t come on that morning. And that’s when I first noticed something was not quite right.
What we saw on the TV instead was live footage from NBC’s Today show. In those first few minutes, the first thought in my mind was not “Planes have struck the Twin Towers”, but rather:
“Oh my God, the World Trade Center’s on fire!”
The second plane had just struck the South Tower minutes before I had arrived in class. It would be a few minutes before my classmates and I realized the actuality and the gravity of what was going on. The hijacking and crashing of the other two planes into The Pentagon and the field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania both happened during that Biology class. By the end of class an hour and a half later, both of the Twin Towers had collapsed. I remember the gasps and “whoas” of the boys in my class as the towers came down. I remember feeling numb, helpless, and dumbfounded as we all watched the events play out on live TV. I’m pretty sure the news of both of the other crashes broke during that class as well. We’d later find out that a classmate reportedly lost his uncle in the attacks.
Much of the rest of that school day was a blur. Lunch was a blur, and English class was mostly a blur. I do remember our teacher asking us to write about our thoughts on the day’s events in our journals. I don’t actually remember what I wrote that day. My final class of the day was Chorus, which had been through its own drama. (Our original teacher basically quit or left a week or two into the term and he was replaced by a long-term substitute who had previously long-subbed one of my science classes in middle school.) I don’t remember much of that class either other than the sub basically scaring us into thinking that they were going to bring back the draft (forced conscription). He basically went around asking all the boys in the class how old they were, and he’d reply with, “In ___ years, you’ll be going to war.” (The blank representing how many years it would be before they turned 18, which is when American men become eligible for the draft. Even now, all male citizens are usually required to sign up for the Selective Service System upon turning 18 in case the government needs to bring back the draft. I was exempt from this because I’m a female.)
The rest of that day after school is hard for me to remember.
The Immediate Aftermath.
The weeks and months following that day saw what I can only describe as shared grief. Not just in my own little microcosm, but all over the country. So many people either had a family member or friend or partner die that day. I saw “United We Stand” signs going up in yards, or as bumper stickers on cars. I got a long sleeved blouse festooned in American flags and wore it on the 11th of each month for almost a year. I used my backpack as an opportunity to share my anger towards the cowardly terrorists responsible. (“How?”, you ask. On the flat side of the backpack that would normally rest against my back, I wrote my feelings on there in Sharpie, that’s how.) We grieved and cried and stayed solemn until a few weeks later, when then-New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani (who at this time was a respected figure among both major political parties and was a far cry from what he’s become now) gave Saturday Night Live creator and executive producer Lorne Michaels permission for his show to be funny and for America to laugh again. The New York Yankees (who are based in The Bronx, while the attack took place in the nearby borough of Manhattan) went all the way to the World Series that year, but were defeated in the decisive final game of the Series, Game 7, by the Arizona Diamondbacks almost two months after the attacks.
This brief period before the beginning of the Afghanistan War later that year was one full of promise and optimism despite all the pain we were experiencing. There was one Saturday Night Live sketch in particular that I think summed up the spirit of this time perfectly. It’s since become known as not just one of Will Ferrell’s most memorable moments, but one of the most memorable in the show’s history.
But that brief window of optimism began to close and close quickly.
The Ensuing Decades.
It turned out that the attacks were the opening salvo in what is now known as the “War on Terror”. Within a month, we began sending troops into Afghanistan, which at the time I was okay with because we believed that the mastermind behind the attacks (we all know his name, I will not glorify him by writing it here, but I will refer to him as “The Mastermind”) was in hiding there.
I could debate whether we really should have invaded Iraq a year and a half later, but I know the specifics behind why we invaded and whether we should have invaded would be certain to invite flame wars, which I for one am not really interested in starting. The point is that we invaded, and I will admit the response to that war really began my complicated relationship with my opinion on the military. Suddenly, it became the norm for people to affix yellow “Support Our Troops” magnets to their cars, almost as if to say, “If you don’t support this war, you’re not a real American.” I remember going on day trips to a family friend’s house out in the rural part of Central Florida, and on the road where we’d turn onto to head towards that house, we’d see this large sign that read in huge letters: “We proudly support our troops. You either stand with us or you stand against us.”
I honestly think it was the Iraq War, even more so than Barack Obama’s election as President in 2008, that was truly the beginning of our hyper-polarization of our national politics. Unlike Afghanistan, there seemed to be a lot of disagreement on whether the invasion of Iraq (and the subsequent overthrow of the authoritarian dictator running the country) was justified. Anti-war protests popped up all over the country. And looking back on history, the pro-war side pretty loudly echoed the pro-war side during the Vietnam War some four decades earlier. Unlike in the Vietnam War, though, the anti-war side during the Iraq War never quite had the loudness or the clout that they had during the Vietnam War. But I sure do remember the pro-war people pretty strongly doubting the patriotism of the anti-war people. And I did tend to sympathize more with the anti-war people. Even now, I still think of myself as mostly a pacifist, but I’m no longer an idealistic one. I realize that self-defense is sometimes necessary.
The polarization had gotten so bad that when The Mastermind was finally found and killed in 2011, my dad openly questioned whether or not he was really dead. There had begun a major distrust in government that would permeate throughout much of the decade.
It took me a while to figure out that one could still support members of the military without necessarily supporting what they were sent to do. Our military, though its members are deserving of respect and admiration for doing one of the most selfless things a person can do (put their life on the line in service for their country), are not gods. Soldiers, Sailors, Marines, Airmen…they’re all human beings with flaws. My dad could have been very easily called into combat if needed during the four years he spent in the Marine Corps. He had the training and this is what he signed up for. He got lucky in that he enlisted in the post-Vietnam period.
The Iraq War basically killed the idea of nuance when it comes to patriotism. And the fact of the matter is that patriotism isn’t always black-and-white, especially when we get ourselves involved in war. We can love our country and also wish for it to do better — better for its people, better for its service people, better for its own prosperity. Sadly, it seems that a lot of people (whether it be about war or vaccines) have lost sight of that.
20 Years Later…What Have We Learned?
First off, I think we’ve learned the following the hard way: Declaring war on a concept or ideology almost always does not go well. As we saw last month in Afghanistan, the war there had essentially delayed the inevitable: the people who were in power before we invaded are back in power, like they never went away. Another lesson we’ve learned is: We cannot build nations for people who do not want them. At times I really do hope that our days of imperialistic policy and nation building are behind us. We cannot be everything to everyone in the world.
Twenty years later, the girl who looked on at the TV screen in horror as the World Trade Center was aflame on live TV has grown into a woman who is at times cautiously optimistic, but at the same time realistically cynical about the state of the world. Her expectations and aspirations have been worn down by reality, but somehow she still keeps a small flame of positivity, even if it’s only a flicker now instead of a torch.
Twenty years later, that TV show that made it okay for us to laugh again is still on the air…and one of the cast members of Saturday Night Live, Pete Davidson, is the son of a firefighter who lost his life trying to save people in the Twin Towers on 9/11.
Twenty years later, the unity that we saw in the immediate aftermath of the attacks is now nothing but a distant memory. The name calling, the demonization of perceived political opponents, the absolute negativity has now become a regular part of political and social discourse. We’ve been at the scourge of the worst pandemic to strike the world in over a century, and we’ve managed to make it worse in our country because of the division and bickering over how to manage it, how to treat it, and even whether to get vaccinated against it.
(Had we had this attitude over a half century ago, the world would still be dealing with smallpox.)
Twenty years later, we are seeing how 9/11 has changed us. In some ways, it changed us for the better. But in many ways, it also changed us for the worse. What hasn’t changed, though, is the fact that it changed us all. It was one of those days that lives on as a significant day in the annals of history, along with days like:
- 15 March 44 BCE (the date of Caesar’s assassination)
- 28 June 1914 (Assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, which triggered World War I)
- 1 September 1939 (the day Germany, under Hitler, invaded Poland, triggering World War II)
- 6 June 1944 (D-Day)
- 9 November 1989 (the Fall of the Berlin Wall, which was the beginning of the fall of communism in Eastern Europe)
Today is a solemn day for all of us. As we reflect on how the events of 11 September 2001 have affected us over the last two decades, let us also remember the lives of the nearly 3,000 people killed that day, and their families and friends. Two decades seems like a long time, but a lot has happened in those years. Let us hopefully, finally, find some peace amidst all the turmoil…even if that peace is ultimately a pipe dream.