I had just turned fifteen years old and begun my sophomore year in high school. September 11, 2001 began like any other morning but it ended as a day which forever transformed my life.
Each of my teachers handled the terrorist attacks differently and each provides a window into America, into my life, and how the next 20 years would unfold.
Zero Period: Is This A Joke?
There’s nothing like starting the day out with chemistry at 7am. Mr. Williamson was a kind man, but the kind of person who would probably turn down the COVID-19 vaccine today over fear that it contained a microchip to make him a vegan socialist.
On this warm September morning, he made a comment as class began that caught me off guard. “Did you guys hear about a plane crashing in New York?” Some of my classmates nodded, but I had heard nothing. He commuted over an hour to my school each day, no doubt listening to the radio in the car, but if he left his house at 5:00am it was before it became clear what was going on.
He shrugged it off and we got right into chemistry. I didn’t give it another thought for the rest of the hour.
* * *
That sort of incredulity was hardly an odd reaction. Planes crashing into buildings? In America? Of course not.
But it was that incredulity that caused the Bush Administration to overlook a Presidential Daily Briefing in August 2001 titled, “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in US.”
It is incredulity—often a willful ignorance—that leads us to ignore problems even when they confront us directly.
Facing conflict is easier for some than others, but when confronted with evil often our first reaction is to think that it is simply isn’t possible.
But the last 20 years have shown that so much is possible, beyond our wildest imaginations.
First Period: Silence. Realization.
From my chemistry class I made my way across the quad to my first period class, Junior Air Force ROTC.
I was among the last to enter the room and took my seat. The classroom was in a new building of the school and cable had not been hooked up yet. Sergeant Hintz was trying to coax the TV to work with a makeshift antenna (a paper clip) and was able to lock in a grainy, black and white picture on ABC.
At this point, I still did not know what was going on, but instantly realized all was not well. There was no flag salute or honor code, as we usually started class. Everyone just sat at their desk, transfixed on the TV.
This was before smart phones and internet was much more infant. The class next door joined us: we all squeezed into to watch the TV monitor.
What was going on? Over and over again there were images of a plane colliding into the World Trade Center. At times, my classmates shrieked, because it wasn’t clear what was a replay and what was new.
News came of a third and fourth plane that had been lost, one in the Pentagon, one in a field in Pennsylvania.
Sergeant Hintz did not say a word the entire hour. He was a veteran and had seen war. Maybe he knew right away that America would soon be at war again. But for this hour, it was only silence.
* * *
It was in silence that I watched the last U.S. helicopter depart from Afghanistan, in a scene eerily reminiscent of the Vietnam War. History has a way of repeating itself. We don’t see it coming, then it hits us like a ton of bricks.
Afghanistan, fall in a less than week to the Taliban? Preposterous. No weapons of mass destruction in Iraq? Impossible. A virus shuts down the entire world? No way. But then it happens. And we sit there in stunned silence before we realize we should have seen it coming.
Isn’t it a shame that we don’t have better discernment? That we cannot even learn form history?
Second Period: Reflection
Ms. Abrams, my English teacher, had the TV off. Instead, she invited us all to take out a sheet of paper and reflect upon which had just occurred.
Oh how I wish I still had that document. Months later, I crumpled it up and threw it away. For some reason it embarrassed me. Revenge was a theme of the note. I was always taught revenge was wrong, to leave it in God’s hands. Maybe that was the reason I “destroyed the evidence.” In any case, destroying that document that expressed my contemporaneous thoughts on the 9/11 attacks is one of my biggest regrets of high school.
* * *
We would be wise to do more reflection. I got into an argument with this same teacher in our school newspaper after I wrote an op-ed condemning her for not conducting the flag salute each day in class (second period was our “homeroom” where the flag salute traditionally took place). She responded back via a letter to the editor, insisting that patriotism is not reciting a pledge, but something much deeper than any superficial act.
While I did not harbor the sort of jingoism in the wake of 9/11 that sent vigilantes hunting Arabs in the streets, as a young conservative I was very happy to express my nationalism in the sort of in-your-face ways that I can only shake my head at today.
Ms. Abrams was right. Patriotism is not a pledge or a song or flag pin. Instead, it is a sober realization that with great freedom comes great responsibility. Loving your country does not mean “love or it leave it” but struggling with the good, bad, and ugly and doing your part to leave it a little better. That starts with caring for those in your immediate sphere. For me, it means being a good husband and father and modeling an ethic and practice of service.
I don’t pledge allegiance to a flag any more, only to God. Oh, but I love America. I view it an exceptional nation, not in the sense that it is better than every other nation but in the sense that it represents a noble experiment in ordered liberty that has produced a vibrant republic that, in total, has made the world a better place.
I think Bill Maher gets it exactly right here in pointing out how unnecessarily we are willing to criticize our own country:
(warning – language)
Reflection allows us to struggle with a reality that is often not black and white and embrace justice, pragmatism, and liberty in a way that positions us to grow by helping others to grow.
During second period an envelope was passed around. This was an unmarked envelope, but we were told the school was raising money to send to the Red Cross for disaster relief. Without prompting, everyone opened their wallets and dropped money in. There was no hesitation. There was no holding back.
What an unprecedented moment in history. What a tragedy we squandered the good that came from the bad.
Third Period: The International Reaction
It was time for German. Frau Markarian, a lovely lady I spent four years studying under, gave me the foundation to be able to speak German and planted the seed for me to travel to Germany, where I eventually lived, met my wife, and got married.
The TV was back on, but it was Deutsche Welle, the German language broadcaster. Tributes from around the world began pouring in, expressing sorrow for and solidairty with the American people.
Chancellor Gerhard Schröder of Germany, President Jacques Chirac of France, Tony Blair of the United Kingdom. All expressed an unequivocal brotherhood with the American people.
* * *
Oh how that would change, and change so quickly. The 9/11 attacks would later be used to justify a war in Iraq, dividing the world, dividing the nation, and leading to the unnecessary loss of American lives and treasure.
I often wonder what would have happened if instead of telling Americans to go out and shop, President Bush called the American people to public service, showing the perpetrators of the attacks and indeed the entire world, that America would continue to lead the world by example.
What if we spent the “Global War On Terror” money on U.S. infrastructure instead?
But the problem with national unity is that it makes us supple. After 9/11, Americans were willing to give up their civil liberties without even a whimper in the form of an increased surveillance state and invasive new federal bureaucracies like the Department of Homeland Security. Fear brushed aside reason and Americans were willing to go along with their leaders without stopping to question them.
Two decades later, Americans continue to cede liberty due to fear, this time due a deadly virus, another enemy that is real but not clearly defined. As the history books already show our overreaction to the 9/11 attacks, so will they show our reaction to COVID-19 was not proportional in shutting down schools and businesses. History will also show that vaccine skeptics, like those Americans who felt a terrorist attack could never occur on their soil, had their head buried in the sand.
History always repeats itself.
Fourth Period: Coping With Algebra
Ms. Kunz was not in the mood to discus 9/11. The bell rang for Algebra II and she looked at us and said, “We need to get our minds off the day. Let’s do math.” We proceeded to have a normal class, though I could not tell you what we actually learned that day. I doubt anyone could.
* * *
Sometimes we do need a distraction.
These days, travel is a welcome distraction. The blog has grown to the point in which I can financially justify gallivanting to Frankfurt, Germany for a day to secure a rubber duck or flying to Sydney, Australia for a great flat white.
Distractions make our monotonous lives a bit less monotonous. They help us cope with bad news. But distractions can also be a stumbling block. Sometimes we need to “face the music.” Sometimes we must grapple with the uncomfortable reality in front of us, not run from it.
Ms. Kunz was a stoic person, one of the least-personal teachers of my entire academic career. Who knew what was really going on in her head, but she handled 9/11 by blocking it from her mind.
Let us not simply block problems from our mind, for that doesn’t make them any less of a reality. But yes, sometimes an escape is appropriate.
Lunch: Family Matters
I had the privilege of having lunch almost every day with my father during my time in high school. He taught math and his classroom was always open and welcoming.
While I was never the cool kid in high school, I have no regrets about the quality time I spent with my father for all four years. I did have friends…they often joined me in the room too.
On this day, we sat and watched the news. I don’t think we said much to each other. Sometimes you can feel close to someone without saying anything at all. The fact that my father and I were both shell-shocked formed an unspoken bond.
My family has carried me through the peaks of success and the valleys of despair over the years. I am thankful for them. I am thankful I could share in that moment with my father and that we could understand each other without even uttering a word.
Fifth Period: The Fifth Estate
If you ever wondered why I love to write, it started from reading prolifically as a child, but really blossomed in high school when I wrote for the school newspaper.
I started my academic day at 7:00am in order that I could end the day in my journalism class, which often stretched late into the night as publishing deadlines approached.
Ms. Yamaguchi (we called her Yam) was our advisor, a small woman with a big heart, acerbic mouth, and fierce intelligence.
She looked at us. We looked backed her. She said, “What do you think?” (She often employed the Socratic Method). We shrugged. She nodded in agreement.
Even for a high school newspaper, you throw everything out the window when something like occurs. Would we do an “Extra” edition? How should we cover?
But in the end, we just sat and watched TV, even though it was still the same images and same video cycled over and over and over.
* * *
I’m reminded of the great duty that journalists have to report the truth and how that mission has been severely compromised in our internet age. Truth is not relative, yet there is a dangerous amount of (mis)information available today on virtually any topic you can think of. Take the COVID-19 vaccine, for example. You can find whatever information you wish to validate your pre-conceived biases.
Whatever tickles your ear, you can hear. Whatever reinforces your worldview, you can digest. In the Wild West of the World Wide Web, there is no minder pointing out what is true and what is false. You must exercise shrewd discernment but the sheer number of voices shouting in your ear undermine that effort.
Back on 9/11/01 there was a lot more trust in news. In network news, cable news, newspapers, and radio. But that has all evaporated. The Iraq War was a culprit, but not the only culprit. Social media, which has given everyone their own platform, has improved our lives in many respects but in other ways made it far worse. More complicated. More full of doubt.
20 years later, we live in a world of doubt not due to a lack of information, but due to too much information. It is a conundrum we must continue to wrestle with.
As I look back on 9/11, my heart is not filled with hope. Our brief unity descended into extreme division. I’m not here to assign blame. Perspective is everything. Death is real. Untimely death, whether it is workers sitting in twin towers or patients breathing through ventilators, is always the most difficult to process.
Let the lesson be this: your day will come. My day will come. Use your time wisely. Learn from the mistakes of others, for we don’t have time to make them all ourselves.
But there’s always a glimmer of hope. Terrorism and death cannot overcome love. Love triumphs over all.
image: Richard Drew