According to family stories, my great grandmother was listening to her daily gospel radio show at 11:00 on November 11, 1918 when the announcer broke in to say the Great War was over. Granny Wham always told me she was at the kitchen sink washing the breakfast dishes on December 7, 1941 when the news came over the radio that the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor. Until the day she died, Mama would tell me about being in gym class at Gray Court – Owings School when the principal announced over the PA system on November 23, 1963 that President Kennedy had been assassinated. Memories of where you were and what you were doing.
Eighteen years ago, on September 11, 2001, I was a thirty year old English teacher at Woodmont High School in Greenville County, SC. I was standing in front of a class of sophomores transitioning from our silent reading block to our daily lesson when Pat Harvey, the school receptionist, tapped on the window in my classroom door. I stepped into the hall to speak to her; she had tears in her eyes. She said, “Two planes have hit the World Trade Towers in New York. They thought the first one was a terrible accident, but then the second one flew straight into the building a few minutes later.”
I remember wishing I had a television in my room. Instead, I went back in class and tried to explain to a group of 15 and 16 year olds that likely the biggest event of their lives had just taken place. America — land of the free and home of the brave — had been attacked by terrorists on an unimaginable scale, not in some foreign airport or embassy, but right in the heart of our largest city. They had questions and I didn’t have any answers. It wasn’t long after though that the calls started coming in for students to be dismissed as parents came from all over to pick their children up, to hug them, to remind themselves their babies were safe.
But were they?
The world I grew up in died on 9/11/2001. I woke up that morning in one country and went to bed in another. Something unthinkable happened. Terrorists had attacked us on our home turf and had killed — all total — over 3000 people in the deadliest action against our homeland since Pearl Harbor. But Pearl Harbor was different. It was a sneak attack, yes, but it was an act of a conventional war. We understood Pearl Harbor; many even predicted it. We didn’t like it of course and we paid the Japanese back in kind, but this attack was something else altogether.
This wasn’t a strike by a nation with borders and cities and ships we could retaliate against. This was a blow from the shadows. Everyone wanted to get back at “them” but this wasn’t World War II. We didn’t have a Tokyo we could sail to and bomb. For awhile, we didn’t even know who “Them” was until Al-Queda and their front man Osama Bin-Ladin stepped up to take responsibility for attacking “The Great Satan.”
I don’t have anything to offer about that day other than what I’ve already written. It was a day of victims and heroes of all stripes and even species. How many epitaphs could include the phrase, “the last anyone saw him, he was climbing up”? How many ordinary citizens carried people down multiple flights of stairs on their backs. I can’t add to that. I’ve been thinking about something different.
I’ve been thinking about the children of those sophomores. The Towers fell 18 years ago today. That means that right now we have a generation of 18 year olds who just became eligible for a military draft who have never known a world of peace. In their lifetimes, America has been in some sort of conflict related to what’s come to be called The Global War on Terror. They don’t understand the irony of scenes in movies with people running through airports because in their lifetimes running through an airport without really good reason might get you shot by security.
Security. Now there’s a word for this new generation. For the last 18 years people have been preaching “never forget; never again!” We’ve developed a bunker mentality. Air travel used to be one of the most carefree adventures a person could take. Now it’s a chaotic mess of ounce bottles and full pat-down searches to get on a plane. It has to be that way because once you realize you live in a world where evil men are willing to use jumbo jets as guided missiles, you live in a world where ANYTHING is possible.
The next attack could come from anywhere. Sadly, we are so scared of the next attack, we’ve lost large chunks of what made us a place to envy. Not only did 3000 people die on 9/11/2001, huge swaths of our freedoms did as well. Under the guise of protecting us from another 9/11, we have become a virtual police state. Now don’t get it twisted; this is the nicest, freest police state in the history of the world, but Big Brother is still watching everywhere all the time because He wasn’t watching in 2001 and people died.
I don’t know if there will ever be another attack the scope of 9/11, but there really doesn’t have to be. For 18 years, our peace of mind as a nation has been non-existent. People are scared of everything now and we are willing to do whatever it takes to whomever it takes to make us a little less scared. With our present mentality, the bad guys don’t have to attack . . . they’ve already won.
Love y’all, and keep your feet clean.