Sunday, 11. September 2011 15:29
I remember, as a kid, my grandfather talking about how everyone knew where they were and what they were doing on the “day that will live in infamy,” i.e. the attack on Pearl Harbor. And I also remember my dad talking about where he was the day Kennedy was shot in 1963. These moments of national crisis are crystalized in the memories of those who went through them. The closest I had come to such a moment in my own life had been the Challenger explosion in the 80’s, when I was a 5th grade student at Immaculate Conception School in Blytheville, AR.
That all changed on 9/11/01. I had just started in the PhD program at the University of Missouri in Columbia, and I was settling in to a new town and getting to know a new stable of friends. This was the furthest I had lived away from home in my life, so I was already experiencing a feeling of dislocation and aprehension. Graduate study is daunting in and of itself. Years of study and work ahead even if you measure up, which 8 out of 10 graduate students fail to do. I literally did not yet have cable — the cable guy was scheduled to come in later in the week. I had spent a long night doing some reading and had planned on sleeping in the next day. So you can imagine my surprise and consternation when my roommate, the lacross coach at MU, woke me that morning and informed me that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center.
I descended from my room (a tiny room in a duplex on the north side of town…it was probably a little bit bigger than Harry’s room under the staircase on Privit Drive) to the main room downstairs to watch the NBC coverage (by way of antenna) of what I initally believed to have been a tragic accident. We were discussing how a plane could have accidentally veered into the WTC, and we speculated that some catastrophic failure in the plane’s guidance systems had occurred when I saw a glint of metal off to the side of the WTC.
Looking back, it was as if time stopped. In my memory, the plane careening towards WTC 2 was moving in slow motion. It felt as if I could reach out and stop the inevitible from happening. It seemed as if that plane would never reach its horrifying destination. But of course, I could not stop it…and its plunge into that wall of glass and steel thundered home the reality of that moment. And even through the grainy reception on an old-school tube-based 20 inch TV, it was clear that the world had changed. As that plane, looking no bigger than a bird, blew through the building and we watched, dumbstruck, as the movie-esque fireball engulfed the World Trade Center…it was an emotional experience I have difficulty describing. Shock. Awe. Denial. Followed by fear and anger. Who had done this? Who would do this? How could this happen to us? That moment hammered home the undeniable fact that the untouchable and invoiable United States homeland was untouchable and invoiable no more.
The rest of the day was a blur. The towers fell. We learned of the third plane and its destiny with the Pentagon. And initial reports indicated a fourth plane had gone down in Pennsylvania. I went to a local resturant to watch continuing coverage on cable news. On the way, I stopped at Wal-Mart and bought an American flag to hang out of the window of my car. Again it is tough to describe what I was feeling. That overwhelming sense of wanting to *do* something…but being completely impotent to do anything. Not to mention the uncertainty. Was this just the first blow in what was to be armageddon? When would the next attack come? Tonight? Tomorrow? A week from then? The movie Red Dawn, which postulated a Cold War era attack on our homeland by communists, had always seemed surreal. More unreal than science fiction. An attack like that couldn’t really happen. Not to us. And then it did. The world had changed.
The following days were a deluge of terrible bits of news, each more depressing than the next, as reality began to set in. We learned that we had been attacked by Al Qaeda and that the attacks were percipitated by jihadists directed by Osama Bin Laden and a War on Terror would ensue. We knew the enemy. But we did not know what he could or would do next. Small sparkles of hope and joy in survivors found and heroism noted were overwhelmed by the absolute reality of the carnage and the number who had lost their lives. And I realized what it meant to live through an event like Pearl Harbor or the Kennedy assasination. To experience the gamut of emotions of a truly world-changing event. To be there when it all changed and would never be the same again.
My story of 9-11 is but one of millions of simillar stories. We were there when the Towers fell. When the Pentagon was violated. When those heroes on Flight 93 proclaimed “Let’s Roll” and struck the only counter-blow against the terorists the West managed on that day. 9-11 changed my views on the importance of international affairs, on the state of national security, on the threats to our country, and on what must be done to protect it. In many ways all of our politics, foreign and domestic, have been affected and continue to be affected by that day. The Chinese have a saying, a curse directed at your enemies: “May you live in interesting times.” In other words, may you live in a time of uncertainty, upheveal, war, and death. 9-11 was the first moment of the “interesting times” of the War on Terror. A day that will live in infamy. A day I lived through, just ten short years ago, on a beautiful Tuesday morning in September.