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Every now and then, an interested person will ask me how I choose a topic for each of my columns. Much of the time, I feel that the topics are chosen for me; not by an editor, but by the issues driving the news cycle. Other times, the topic is chosen by the date itself. Sept. 11 is one of those dates.
Like many other Americans, I make it a point every year on this day to reflect on the events of Sept. 11, 2001. I was 17 years old when the planes hit the towers, a terribly immature 17 in hindsight; and I lived a pretty insulated existence. I kept a diary in a series of frilly hardcover notebooks and wrote in them what I claimed to be my “deepest, most intimate thoughts,” which as an adult I realize were about as deep as a puddle. Woven between pages of superficial prattling about school and friends and extracurricular activities, however, are several pages containing much more somber and serious words from the hours, days and months after America was attacked.
“Three of the World Trade buildings have collapsed entirely, and thousands upon thousands of people are now dead,” I’d written that day. “A large chunk of the Pentagon has been destroyed. They’re saying that there could be anywhere from 100 to 800 bodies trapped inside. Another flight was hijacked and crashed somewhere in Pennsylvania. They say that it was the worst incident in the history of the United States. Even worse than Pearl Harbor.”
It was almost as if I had needed to write it down at the time to confirm that what was occurring was real and not some plot from a 90s blockbuster action movie, even as I had no doubt that it was actually happening. Most of us remember where we were when we learned of the attack. I remember what I was wearing that day, where I was standing, who told me a plane crashed into the World Trade Center, and how I’d thought it was just a horrible accident until the second plane hit.
“The major news stations have not gone off the air for over 50 hours. I highly doubt that Dan Rather, Tom Brokaw, or Peter Jennings have had a wink of sleep in over two days,” I wrote on Sept. 13. It was a time when Americans got their news primarily from television, radio and print; before the days of texting, streaming, social media and smartphones; when using the internet required powering up a clunky desktop or laptop computer. What a different world it was only two decades ago.
“People are being interviewed by the dozens by news anchors. Many of them are covered with dust, many with blood, many carrying pictures of family members lost and sobbing,” I continued. That one really sticks with me.
Most of the thoughts I put to paper as a 17-year-old have no business seeing the light of day ever again. At the same time, I’m glad I have a record of what was going through my head on Sept. 11, because my reflections from that awful day get to stay perfectly intact. The memories of what we all experienced that day are seared in our hearts and minds. That will never change. But when we look back on the past, we do so through the lens of what the world — and our lives — look like now. The world has changed. We’ve changed with it. And so have our reflections, as I realize from my own over the last two decades.
On Sept. 11, 2002, I had been looking very intently to do some sort of activity to observe the anniversary of the attack, as it just didn’t feel right to treat the day like any other. I ended up attending a service of remembrance at a friend’s church, expecting that I would leave feeling uplifted and encouraged. But what I’d hoped would be a message about faith in troubling times when the memories were still so fresh was in fact a sermon focused exclusively on the evils of Islam, complete with an insert in the church bulletin detailing everything Muslims believe that make it such a bad faith. To say the least, that service didn’t do anything for me then. The memory of it now serves a tiny purpose.
In 2011, it seemed surreal that a whole decade had passed. To many, this anniversary presented a rare moment of jubilance as the first time the world could observe the occasion knowing that Osama bin Laden, founder of the al-Qaida terrorist network responsible for carrying out the attack, had finally been located and killed. But I felt particularly sad that year over the effect being had on some families by the War on Terror precipitated by the 9/11 attack. One member of my own was on military deployment in Afghanistan. Another was away dealing with issues related in part to post-traumatic stress from his 2nd tour in Iraq during a violent insurgency in the spring of 2004. Both are fathers whose children were very young at the time, and after leaving a family gathering that September which included four little kids who missed their dads very much, I found myself whispering “yeah, this sucks,” under my breath and blinking back a few tears.
While we reflected and remembered in 2012, Americans were under attack on the other side of the world. In 2013, our observance on the anniversary of Sept. 11 became two-pronged: We remembered the fallen towers, the Pentagon and bravery of the Flight 93 passengers who stormed the cockpit; and we remembered four American lives lost to an organized attack on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, including that of United States Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens. Sentiment was also two-pronged. Reflections on the falling of the twin towers were through a lens of solemnity; on the attack in Benghazi they were largely through a lens of anger over the government’s handling of the issue, which was originally described as a “spontaneous” reaction to an “offensive video.”
We remembered in 2019, as the first people who had not been alive at the time of the attacks were set to become adults. We remembered in 2021, as the country of Afghanistan, where the U.S. had waged war to root out the terrorists, fell to the same Taliban oppressors who had harbored al-Qaida and had now returned to rule under their brutal regime. “Women aren’t allowed to hold jobs or go to school,” I wrote in my diary in November 2001 while U.S. forces teamed with the Northern Alliance against the Taliban. It’s sad how those same words apply once more today.
The world will continue to change. We will continue to change with it. But our feelings won’t change. Sept. 11, 2001 was an epochal day in our history, and one we’ll never forget, no matter how many years continue to tick by.
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