Today is the five-year anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. Sure, it seems like it's been a lot longer; but time flies when you're having fun, right?
I'm not much for anniversaries, because they're more symbolic than anything. Anyway, I doubt anyone is really going to wake up today and say, "So 9/11 was exactly five years ago? Gee, I haven't thought about that in a while!" Trust me; no one in the world needs a mark on the calendar to remember that horrific day.
I'm not going to relate my personal tale of where I was that day. First off, I was asleep for most of the destruction. Second, who really cares what some college student from Lafayette, Louisiana, was doing at the time? I was fortunate to spend most of my day running errands in perfect weather, going to school (where my only class of the day was cancelled) and then work. The biggest impacts on my day were listening to live coverage of the chaos on NPR (including an asphyxiating reporter) and seeing no planes in the air that day. This was in stark contrast to two days before, when I worked a triathlon at the local airport and watched nearby planes take off, one after another, into horrendous storm clouds.
Big whoop, right? No doubt that snippet of information has added profoundly to your understanding of 9/11. Still, one event that happened to me in the aftermath is kind of noteworthy and--dare I say it?--slightly amusing.
Within days of the attacks, UL planned a campus-wide vigil. I was running late, and got there right as it started. As I walked toward the site, I found myself walking alongside a large contingent of foreign students. Turns out I had walked straight into a march of some kind. Bystanders flanked the procession, a mixture of other international students and gawking Caucasians. The silence was eerie, especially considering I couldn't see the sign that the lead marchers were carrying. There had been anecdotal evidence of racial clashes at school over the past few days, so for all I knew it could have been a protest against the vigil. All I knew was that I was walking alongside a silent group of people who either stood for everything I did, or who diametrically opposed all of it. And I wouldn't know the answer until I reached the vigil and gauged the general population's reaction.
When we reached the quad, a gaggle of cameras awaited. Uncertain of what I was marching for, and wanting to not diminish/abet that cause one way or the other, I jumped to the side. I hit a gate chain and nearly tripped in front of thousands of people. Fortunately for my ever-fragile ego, all of them were focused on the message brought forth by the marchers, which I was now at an angle to read:
I shouldn't have worried. But didn't we all worry in those days?
The flipside of this outpouring of support was a vocal release of the racist and chickenhawk tripe that even the most ignorant ranter would normally keep to themselves, or speak only behind a hood. More than once, "We're at war!" was spoken with something best described as lust. As much war talk as I had to hear from the armchair conservatives after 9/11, and as much ultra-nationalism as we saw in the ensuing days, I also saw an unprecedented outpouring of peace. It's often been said that national tragedies bring out both the best and the worst in people, and 9/11 continues to do so. I think the back page from the Sept. 19, 2001 Vermilion encapsulates the spectrum of thought (such as it was) at the time:
This was during one of my hiatuses from the paper, so my input was not requested. But I was fortunate enough to publish a column about it the following year. Published on Sept. 11, 2002, my column was titled simply, Today, One Year Later. An excerpt:
As for the government’s handling of the crisis, I give them in A+—in failing spectacularly. This assault was the perfect opportunity to show the world how justice is done right—the American way!
Instead, our esteemed leaders went the medieval route, with daily doses of Constitution shredding. Evidently, the current strategy is to out-terrorize the terrorists, even if the alleged “terrorists” are American citizens whose only contact with a bomb was seeing the movie “Battlefield Earth.”
In this bizarre pinball game of a year, the U.S. government has careened out of control with power, with only the flippers of a concerned American public keeping them on the playing field. But like any pinball machine, the field is slanted, and the ball slips through the flippers once in a while. In other words, the government, much like a pinball, does what it wants if we let it. Tilt!
The positive stories of this past year, and there are multitudes of them, lie in the regular people of America: the firefighters, the police officers, the working class and everyone else involved in the collective caring of a nation. These selfless patriots became unified not through some abstract concept of “fighting terror” or revenge, but through bringing hope and comfort to the afflicted.
In the face of Dick Cheney's war-no-matter-what comments, recent reports of Iraq's non-involvement in the 9/11 attacks and Osama bin Laden's evident getaway, it appears that the hard-liners refuse to learn anything from the lessons of the past five years. In response, I can only reiterate what I said at the end of my one-year column, which I could just as easily write today:
Hopefully the American people will continue to have their hearts in the right place and government belligerence won’t force us into yet another “where were you when you heard…” incident. Let’s hope we never have to remember where we were ever again.