On September 11th, 2001, I watched the attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon in the lobby of my dorm. No one that I knew went to class that day. Instead, we gathered around the TV and we watched.
Looking back, I remember that it was a day that seemed to move in slow motion. I also remember being in a sort of denial when I saw the towers fall. Even though I had seen the fireball of the second plane hitting the building and I had also seen people jumping out of the burning towers, a part of me kept believing that surely they had managed to evacuate the towers before they came down.
I wasn’t the only one in denial that day. As initial reports started to come in that indicated that the hijackers had been from the Middle East, I remember one analyst on television who kept insisting that an attack of this magnitude was beyond their capability and that, instead, the airplanes had to have been hijacked by the same type of militia people who were behind the Oklahoma City Bombing in 1995. I don’t share that to try to shame the analyst or any other member of the media. It’s just an example of how confused we all were during those first few hours.
At around 7 at night, long after the Towers had fallen and when the nation was still wondering whether this was just the beginning of an even bigger attack, I went out for a walk. I walked all the way to the downtown square of the small college town where I was living. Standing in front of the old courthouse was a tall, blonde woman wearing a gray dress. She was obviously distraught and when she saw me, she asked if I could tell her how to get to East Oak Street. Since the town was still relatively new to me, I apologized and said that I didn’t.
“I don’t know where I’m going,” the woman said with a laugh.
At that moment, neither did any of us. There was a feeling that hung in the air that things would never again be the same and that feeling turned out to be correct.
One of the goals of terrorism is to not only change a nation’s culture but to also leave its citizens in a state of constant fear and, on that count, 9-11 did what it was meant to do. We’re now much more willing to accept the idea that we have to surrender our right to privacy and people have gone from seeing the President as being a coequal part of government to instead expecting him to rule as some sort of benign dictator. As a result of 9-11, America is now a much more authoritarian society and no one even raises an eyebrow when personal freedoms and privacy are violated in the name of safety.
At the same time, 9-11 also revealed America at its best. The first responders who rushed into the towers, the passengers who fought back on Flight 93, the people across the nation who took the time to check on and comfort their neighbors; these people represented everything that does make America great. George W. Bush gets a lot of criticism but anyone who wasn’t moved by his speech in front of Ground Zero has no heart. At that moment, he said exactly what America needed to hear and I remember, at the time, thinking that there was no way Al Gore could have been pulled that off. As for the presidents who came after Bush, Obama, Trump, and certainly Biden would have been incapable of not making the moment about themselves. Bush made that moment about America and, for a while, we were actually united.
There’s a whole new generation that will never understand just how big a national trauma 9-11 was. They’ll grow up believing that America has always been like this. They’ll never know any different and that’s a tragedy.
I often think about that woman in front of the courthouse and her words that day. 20 years after 9-11, do we know where we’re going?