Of all the memories I have of September 11, 2001, the one that always seems to catch me by surprise is just how beautiful of a day it was.
It was gorgeous late summer day. The temperature was what anyone would consider perfect for the time of year. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky.
I assume that I started my day like any other morning. Wake up. Shower. Shave. Perhaps a stop at a convenience store before I hit the road for another day.
The memories of the morning start somewhere just before 8am Central, in the car, listening to the radio, when the station made reference to one of the towers getting hit by a plane. They were still playing music. They gave no further details. It wasn’t otherwise urgent. The visual I created in my head was of a small Cessna that perhaps was involved in an accident, or maybe had a crazy person decide to commit suicide.
I couldn’t imagine the horror of what real people intended to do that day.
When I was 19 years old, my mother died in a car accident. Much like that day, September 11th is one I can remember with amazing clarity and detail. The weather. The big details as well as the small. I can remember the gasps when the 2nd plane hit from people gathered around the television set in the newsroom of the radio station cluster where I worked. I can remember later when somebody remarked how weird it was that there were no jet trails in the sky. The nation’s air space had been shut down.
I remember going to fill up my car with gas because that was a thing I was told I should do. There was a guy at the gas station with his truck full of gas cans. He was going to fill all of them up.
The look in his eye was one of fear.
I still tear up sometimes when I think about 9/11. The normal thing to say is that it’s out of a sense of mourning for all of those who lost their lives that day. The people. The first responders. The parents. Their children. And while I do mourn for them, or at least hope I do, if I’m being honest there is only so much I can feel for them. I didn’t know them personally. I don’t know anyone who did. It’s a mourning that longs for itself to be more than it is, because at the end of the day it’s something that happened to someone else.
My oldest son is now old enough to ask me about that day. He asks and I grow more distant than I expect. The details of that day itself are easy enough to tell him. Four planes. Two towers. Flight 93. The Pentagon. 3,000 dead.
It’s what happened next that is harder to explain. It’s the loss that’s perhaps more tangible to all of us than even the lives that were lost. September 11th was a day when many of us lost our innocence, and later our civility and respect.
The come-together moments in the aftermath were grand, euphoric and cathartic. America would come together and rebuild, we thought, and bring those who did us harm to justice. That’s the type of story we had always been told about America, and the one we desperately hoped would be true.
Yet, we’re more politically torn today than we have been in decades. Only during the Civil War, or perhaps the turbulent 1960s, has America been more divided by our politics than we are today.
The coming wars left thousands of our own soldiers dead, and two opposing sides at home. One side called the other war criminals while the latter called the former traitors. When the opportunity to come together and celebrate the nation’s first ever African American president came about, a quarter of the country questioned his very legitimacy as an American. Later police shootings pitted police against protestors with neither side able to give an ounce of empathy to the other. For one side, minorities and immigrants and refugees would become suspect. One of the nation’s chief antagonists throughout would become president.
Looking back, all of the strife and vitriol and fear and contempt that we see in today’s politics started on that fateful morning.
I was 22.
I worked like mad the rest of the day. There were radio pieces to produce, and copy to write, and things to get on the air. I got back to my apartment that night as the president was set to speak.
My roommates and I watched him in silence. Nobody said a word from the time I arrived until he finished speaking. There were four of us in the apartment. All no more than 23 years old. Everyone knew that our world would change forever.
The silence was broken when one of us suggested we head to the bar. And so we did. Friends and strangers trying to process what we had just seen and come to terms with the long ride ahead.
Seventeen years later, what a long ride it’s been.