Monday, September 11, 2006

Where Were You When the Towers Fell?

Today is the five-year anniversary of the tragedy known simply as 9/11. Say "nine-eleven" out loud to anyone in the country, and no further explanation is needed. Today, every news channel on TV and news site online is filled with survivor stories, photo collages, lists of the dead. We must relive that horrific event whether we want to or not.

The only other event that has occurred in my lifetime that shook the nation to its core was the death of Elvis Presley in 1977 (and arguably, the explosion of the Challenger space shuttle, though someone had to remind me of that one). I mean no disrespect in comparing the two events; they both often enter into conversations with the question "Where were you when..." I can answer that question for both events. I was twelve years old, bouncing my Super Pinky ball off the concrete wall of our garage in small-town Wisconsin when a radio announcer interrupted whatever tune was playing to inform us listeners that the King had been found dead in his bathroom. Never a devoted Elvis fan, I still knew enough to know at that very moment that this was news that would leave America as a nation in shock. And it did.

As for 9/11, I recall that morning just as clearly. Bella was only 8 months old, and I was nursing her in my recliner in the family room. I clicked on the TV in hopes of getting a weather forecast for the day so I could dress the kids appropriately for school. Max and Tuck were eating breakfast in the kitchen; Tavi was still in bed. It was just around 7 a.m. The horrifying images that assaulted me from the television left me speechless. I set Bella down on a blanket on the floor and ran upstairs to wake up Wes. "Get up," I said as I shook him. "Get up. Terrorists have attacked New York." And then I started to sob. Heaving, stuttering sobs. A bleary-eyed Wes just looked at me. "What?" he asked in a disoriented tone. "The Twin Towers. Planes crashed into them. They're gone," was all I could manage.

We went back downstairs and I tried to compose myself so as not to scare the boys. As I packed their lunches and filled their water bottles, I thought how absurd it was for me to be going about my daily routine while, on the other side of the country, human limbs and pieces of scalp were raining from a bloody sky. How could I do this? Before the details, before learning of who orchestrated the attack, before knowing much of anything, I still knew America would never be the same. Life as I had known it for over three decades was irrevocably changed in those minutes between the attack on the North Tower and the downing of United Airlines Flight 93.

And changed, it is. In those immediate months following the attack, we seemed to reach a level of human kindness never before achieved, at least not in my lifetime. We were Americans. Not whites or blacks, upper- or lower-class, believers or non-. We were simply Americans, all of us mourning for losses that couldn't possibly be measured. We accepted the heartfelt condolences so graciously offered us from around the world, and we wept. For days, months. We wept tears of sorrow, fear, anger. We wept for those we knew and those we'd never know. For the loved ones left behind, the babies yet to be born, the lives so viciously stolen.

But as the years passed, so too have those days of grace and kindness. We waged a war on false pretenses, and we're still there. Fighting. Fighting. Fighting. Thousands of innocents are dying, and we don't want to hear about it. On the homefront, we're divided. It's not a blurry, dotted line, but a solid chasm that pits us one against the other. Those of us who speak out against our leader, this war, are labeled unpatriotic. Fervent nationalism has taken hold of this country, and like racism and sexism, it is a prejudice. While so much of the rest of the world looks upon America as an arrogant imperialist, we raise our flag high and continue to insist we are in the right, even as our soldiers are imprisoned for their brutality and conduct unbecoming.

For all their bluster and alleged efforts, our government has not made America a safer place to live since 9/11. On the contrary, terrorist attacks are on the rise. And though we look back on the unfathomable tragedy of 9/11 with the hindsight of five years, I ask: Where is the humanity? What happened to that nation of folks who tirelessly gave of themselves, past the point where they had anything left to give? Where went that kinder, gentler nation?
We waged war in Iraq, to be sure. But we waged it right here at home, too. And for all our tears and empathy, we will never return to the charitable, selfless nation we were for those few months following 9/11.

It's us against them, only we're the us. And we're the them.


Mary A. Shafer said...

How right you are, and how utterly, totally sad and unnecessary all this infighting is. Will it take yet another attack from without to realize what we have within, and to protect and cherish it with love instead of ugly words and weapons?

Judith K. Witherow said...

On 9/11 my oldest son picked me up to take me to a plant place to get a tree we had paid for earlier. When I got inside his truck I saw a look on his face that will never leave me. He's a big guy and I've never seen him afraid of anything. All he could say was, "Mom, something terrible is happening. What are we going to do? Listen to what they are saying on the radio."
No one knew for sure what had happened at that time.
The plant store was on a hillside that overlooked the Pentagon, and we both saw dark smoke start to fill the air. We grabbed the tree and headed back home to watch TV. (We live by Andrew's Air Force Base-home of the president's plane.)It was pure chaos with reporters everywhere outside the gate.
When I turned on my computer. There was a message from a dear friend. She said, "The part of the Pentagon that was hit is where my partner, Sheila, was working. Judith pray she escaped." Sheila was one of the most peace loving women I've ever known. The previous weekend she had completed a Peace Garden in their backyard. Sad is too small of a word to use for the loss of her. All they found was her ring to identify her body. Her partner stayed at their house of sixteen years as long as she could, but is now living in Delaware. Too many memories also took her away from us.
All of us will never be the same. My son is still reliving the day when everything changed. Strong? Too short of a word also.

vankalen said...

brava beck. well said.

(tho i so dislike the nickname we've given one of our country's worst tragedies..."9-11". how could something so huge be reduced to something as trite and abbreviated as a bottle of juice? is it too much for society to simply speak the words, "events of september 11?" jeez. i blame the media, but ultimately, we're all guilty)

vankalen said...

brava beck. well said.

(tho i so dislike the nickname we've given one of our country's worst tragedies..."9-11". how could something so huge be reduced to something as trite and abbreviated as a bottle of juice? is it too much for society to simply speak the words, "events of september 11?" jeez. i blame the media, but ultimately, we're all guilty)

Anonymous said...

I was a first year could I talk to my students about the events of September 11th when I still can't even fathom it?