It’s difficult to believe that it’s been 14 years since the most ground-shaking act of terrorism in our nation’s history.
My oldest nephew was born one month before the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon. Which means as he ages, I’ll continue to notice just how long ago that horrific day was.
Everybody over the age of 25 or so — and some younger than that — has a story about where they were that unforgettable day.
I was in my sophomore year of college. I had one of those televisions with a wake-up alarm, set to turn on early in the morning and get me up for my Journalism class. My television was tuned in to ESPN, which is about all I watched back in those days. As the anchors on set were delivering sports scores and recaps from the previous day’s games, I noticed a red, scrolling ticker across the bottom with a “Breaking News” alert. I didn’t think anything of it, assuming it was some news about a player agreeing to a contract extension or something along those lines.
I got up and walked down the hallway to our bathroom, passing by another dorm room with the door wide open. Inside, I could hear a news anchor — of the non-sports variety — talking vaguely about a plane that crashed into the side of a building. Again, I thought nothing of the report — not out of a lack of sympathy for the pilot that surely perished from such a crash, but because I had heard of light aircraft crashing before.
When I got back to my room, I finally read the breaking news at the bottom of the screen and noticed the same news regarding a plane crash that I heard from the other dorm room. I put two and two together and realized that if a sports channel was reporting breaking news for a non-sports event, then it surely had to be a big deal. I tuned in to ESPN’s parent network, ABC, to hear Peter Jennings reporting on the details of the first moments of what would later be revealed as a terrorist attack.
I sat on my bed watching footage of the second airplane hitting the towers, growing more in disbelief as the seconds slowly ticked by. What is going on here? Is this really a terrorist attack? Is our country really in the middle of an act of war? I was glued to the TV. I didn’t want to turn it off or leave my room, but I eventually succumbed and went to class.
As I previously mentioned, my morning class for the day was Journalism, and I couldn’t think of a better real-life example of broadcast journalism than what was going on. Neither could our teacher, apparently, as she had already wheeled in a TV from the audio/video room and allowed us to spend the entire class watching Jennings give updates as he got them.
We would soon learn that a third plane crashed into the Pentagon in Washington and a fourth plane crash landed in a field in Pennsylvania. Needless to say, we were all relieved that plane didn’t hit its target. And yet, there was no relief from the families of those who perished on that plane.
I remember vividly that all airplanes were grounded to make sure no more were hijacked and headed for various destinations of destruction. There was information overload all day as reporters scrambled to get updates about what was going on.
Some of it was valid news. Some of it was rumors and speculation. All of it was riveting.
Going to college about an hour outside Chicago, we all wondered whether the Windy City — the Sears Tower, specifically — was a possible target. Thankfully, they never came close.
The entire day seemed like a movie. I had seen these types of film scripts before. Only, it wasn’t a movie. There were no cinematic special effects. There were no directors ready to yell “cut!” when the scene was over. This was real life. Those were real planes. And those were real people.
Real people who were aboard the planes and died on impact. Real people who were trapped inside the towers and could not escape. Real people who leapt to their deaths rather than burn alive. Real firefighters and rescue workers who stepped into the valley of darkness and the shadows of death and risked their own lives to help save others in danger.
The immediacy of the news finally died down as the day turned to night, but that didn’t stop the coverage. I continued to watch every bit of analysis I could, and I read every possible story I could, which helped shed light on who did this, why they did it, who was affected by it, and what would be the fallout of it all.
What I witnessed in the days and months that followed that horrific day was a kind of unity I had never seen before. First responders were hailed as heroes and lauded for their bravery. “God Bless America” was sung at baseball stadiums throughout the country. President George W. Bush had a post-9/11 approval rating of 90%. Grown men and women cried with a mixture of pride and sorrow. I remember tuning into the radio to hear round-the-clock patriotic songs, bawling my eyes out while unashamedly singing along — badly — to Lee Greenwood’s “I’m Proud To Be An American.”
We had differences and disagreements but, damn it, we were Americans. United in our common values, freedom and liberty.
Nothing brings people together more than a national tragedy. It’s a shame that it often has to come to that before people can find common ground together. We grumble about small problems in our lives and quarrel over petty differences, and yet something bad happens and it’s like we’re best friends.
How far we have come since then.
Fourteen years later and we’re right back to fighting over our differences and stretching the divide to the point of separation. I’d like to say there’s a limit to our disunity and lack of accord, but there’s really no telling how divided we can become.
Is it really going to take another national tragedy to bridge the gap? I pray to God it doesn’t come to that.
“Never Forget” has become a national motto regarding 9/11. And we know the motto refers specifically to the 2,996 deaths from that tragedy. It also refers to the profound impact it had on the lives of those who survived but witnessed the tragedy firsthand, the fallout on our economy, and the way our culture was changed and affected by the “War on Terror.”
But I’ll also never forget how we Americans — and humans in general, as there was widespread sympathy all over the world for our country — have more in common than we often keep in our collective conscience. We are children of God, and whatever strife we face can be overcome by love and acceptance rather than selfishness, egotism and hatred. It seems naive and far-fetched to ever expect a nation of total peace, harmony, and general accordance. But there’s at least widespread opportunity for reconciliation.
I just pray people see it and are driven to it by the goodness of their hearts, and not by the atrocity of another national disaster.