The 700-mile Away View of 9/11

I think of the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001 a little bit like our nation’s largest earthquake. It’s clear that 1 World Trade Center was the epicenter and the greatest loss and damage occurred in the surrounding neighborhood, but the city of New York as a whole, millions of people in thousands of agencies and industries, and every American in cities from sea to shining sea felt at least an aftershock of the trauma hand-delivered to our shores that day.

As a Midwestern teenager I had no direct connection to New York City or the World Trade Center that morning, and to this day my only connections to the city are still no more than having a couple of podcasting friends who happen to call it home, but like most others across this country, I couldn’t take my eyes off of what was happening in the Big Apple that morning.

I had chosen to take a 2nd year of Biology my junior year of high school, and this actually put me in a class that largely consisted of students a year younger than me who just happened to be taking a state-mandated, standardized test that morning. Because of this, my classroom was closed off. No televisions were on, and no one was allowed to come or go once the testing began so when I re-emerged in the hallway at 8:55 AM, I had less than ten minutes to catch up. A plane had hit the north tower of the World Trade Center less than 20 minutes earlier, and among the crowd of largely senior students who were discussing the topic, no motive was yet being ascribed, though the idea that it was an accident wasn’t one being tossed around much.

My next class started at 9:05 AM, and I settled into my assigned seat in a US government class, where NBC News was now on the television, just as the second plane hit the south tower. I first thought it was a replay of the earlier impact, but in just seconds I realized there was already smoke coming from the other tower. I didn’t know much about air traffic, had never even stepped foot in an airport to that point, but I knew it was no accident, and I knew things were changing in a big way. 

Before that sounds overly dramatic, maybe I should give you some background. I was born in 1985, had a grandfather who helped fund Christian missionaries around the world and talked an uncomfortable amount about the “New World Order” and “One World Government.” I was made acutely aware of war and warfare at a young age.

One night in January of 1991, ironically just moments before my parents and I would join my paternal grandfather and grandmother at a mid-week church service, I sat and watched on the news as American forces made their entry into the First Gulf War.

I was 5, technically 5 1/2.

Along with my father, a man much less interested in conspiracy theories than his own father, for the next month-plus I watched the news night after night and tried to understand what I was seeing and where this melodrama half a world away fit into my life. I even remember judgmentally discussing the cease fire agreement in the “reading pit” of my kindergarten classroom with my friend Nick.

A few days later, obviously, I was back to play as if none of it had ever happened. There was not a night, however, when I was a child that my father didn’t settle in after dinner to watch some version of the nightly news. My son spends thirty minutes playing learning games on his iPad each night, but in the early 90’s I spent an hour with Dan Rather.

Not much over the next two years reached out from the screen and grabbed me the way that war had, but then in February 1993 came the footage and discussion of the first bombing of the World Trade Center. I know what I’m about to say sounds terrible, but I hope you’ll have a little grace with seven-year-old me.

I had never heard of terrorism, foreign or domestic, and all I knew by mid-March 1993 was that the men who were being accused of bombing the World Trade Center looked a lot like the face I kept seeing all through the coverage of the war a couple years earlier, Saddam Hussein.

As I sit here today, it’s murky for me to say whether there was any connection between the 1993 bombers, Hussein, Al-Qaeda, or any other particular person or group, I’m just explaining the information that formed my worldview by the time the morning of September 11, 2001 rolled around.

Another important piece of the puzzle was that our President by that day was George W. Bush, and the First Gulf War was the pride and joy of his father and W.’s VP, Dick Cheney. It was clear that some of our leaders and former leaders had no love loss for certain Middle Eastern peoples, and it felt safe to assume those people felt much the same way about our leaders.

I didn’t know at seven or sixteen what the importance of the World Trade Center was, but I knew if a group of people thought it was important enough to attack, bide their time for eight years after failing, and then attack again, it had to be a big deal.

I discovered who I was that day. I was, as I mostly still am, a big picture person. My wife and I have often joked since becoming involved in the true crime podcasting world that if one of us is murdered, the other will immediately be a suspect because we’re unlikely to react the way a lot of people would expect. She, to a much lesser degree, is a big picture person, and while mourning the loss of a loved one is natural and expected, we both agree for the sake of our children and our parents, we’ll likely be all business in the early days following a loss like this and only break down when we feel the most pressing work is done and no one is around to see it.

That’s much how the morning of 9/11 went for me. It’s immensely sad that people were dying, but I turned quickly to the thoughts of can we as a nation ever consider ourselves safe again? Will our economy be destroyed? Will our economy even matter anymore? I had just started my first sales job the day before, and, needless to say, the second day of training was cancelled.

These were the things I wanted to discuss even on that first day, but few of my classmates had the frame of reference I had to even begin to entertain such a discussion, and all of the teachers simply refused to. By early afternoon my hunt for other big picture people had me exhausted, and I shut down and don’t remember much of the rest of the day.

In the words of my sixteen-year-old self, it sucked, it still sucks, that more than 3,000 people lost their lives that day, but I and my friends and family were still alive, and I felt the situation was so important, we needed to begin navigating it immediately. There would be time to mourn and honor the lives lost once we assured that the rest of us, including their remaining loved ones, were safe and secure.

I’ve softened on this stance only slightly over the years, and it’s not necessarily because of sorrow for those who died in the towers that day, but because the most impactful realities of post-9/11 America are far more social than they are economic or security-related.

Like I said, I had never been to an airport prior to the 9/11 attack, so if getting through security takes a little longer now than it did in 1999, it’s no skin off my teeth. Our economy has seen its ups and downs in the intervening 19 years, but it stands today as one of the strongest in the world. Instead we live with the travesty that instead of realizing that anyone who carries out such an attack is a radical version of whatever they are, Muslim-Americans are still ridiculed and persecuted in our country in the name of 9/11 victims.

While I support our soldiers, I hate that an entire generation, largely my peers, were motivated to join the military because of this event. In the Spring of 2001, I had become close with an older student at my high school, who not long after the attack on the World Trade Center decided he was going to join the military, an idea he was admittedly kicking around prior to the attack. Again, in the Spring of 2002 we were back in the environment that had brought us together the previous Spring, and everyday I wanted to look at him and implore him that if there was any way to change his decision, that he should do it.

I never said anything, he followed his heart, and fortunately returned safely to his beautiful wife and family. A cousin of his who had made the same brave decision, did not.

So, when people on this day say “Never Forget,” the irrationally curious person that I am always wonder just what they’re remembering. I could never commit to memory all of the names of the people who lost their lives on that terrible morning, including those who died in the crash at the Pentagon and the brave folks who saved who knows who many lives when they played a role in taking one of the weaponized planes down in rural Pennsylvania.

I can, however, always use this as an opportunity to remember to have grace.

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