Eighteen years ago today, I was in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette newsroom with the few people who were here at 8 a.m. I was a news clerk at the time, and had seen on the wire that one tower of the World Trade Center had been hit by a plane. Video of smoke rising from the building was on the three TVs near the group of city editors’ desks. Not long after, someone called out. The second tower had been struck.
About 10 of us crowded around the TVs, not knowing what was going on, but realizing this was no ordinary incident. One crash into the twin towers could be explained as an accident. But two?
An attack on the Pentagon and a crash in Pennsylvania followed in the next few hours. Nearly 3,000 people died in the attacks.
Colleagues who were away (two of them at the Toronto Film Festival) were stranded where they were when U.S. air traffic was grounded, and had to get home by bus or car. The reporters and photographers we sent to New York City also had to drive, so we weren’t sure when they’d get there or get back, or if they’d be able to find a place to stay.
I don’t remember much of the rest of that day, lost in the frenzy of answering phones and helping editors and reporters, but I remember how I felt: Numb. Afraid. More than a little nauseated. And like I’d been here before.
Six years earlier I had been in another newsroom when the Alfred E. Murrah federal building in Oklahoma City was bombed. After weeks of editing and archiving video of the aftermath and the funerals, I was seeing the gutted building and firefighter Chris Fields carrying the limp, bloodied body of Baylee Almon in my sleep. I would repeat that cycle with the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, but without the video editing. It’s sad that it now seems almost routine.
For months after the attack, all mail for the newspaper had to be opened off-site, thanks to the Amerithrax attacks shortly after 9/11, with anonymous letters containing deadly anthrax spores mailed to media companies and government offices, believed to have been sent by government scientist Bruce Ivins, who committed suicide in 2008. Another scientist, Steven Hatfill, was earlier a “person of interest,” but was cleared and received a settlement in his lawsuit against the government over the accusation. Five people died, and 17 were infected after inhaling the spores.
Fellow clerk Andrew wasn’t taking any chances, and for a long time after the danger had passed, he continued donning a mask whenever he dealt with the newsroom mail.
A lot of things changed after 9/11. It seems we’ve always been a bit of a paranoid lot (ahem, witches), but the attacks seemed to magnify that, with conspiracy theories (many of them revolving around the government staging the attacks) gaining ground in the mainstream and people stocking up on duct tape and plastic shooting in the event of another attack. And while we came together as a nation in many ways, many of us divided even further along partisan and religious lines. Anyone who disagreed with the president on anything was branded as un-American (like the Dixie Chicks). Because France disagreed with the proposal to invade Iraq, we could no longer eat “French” fries or “French” toast—they were “freedom” fries and “freedom” toast.
We invaded Afghanistan less than a month after 9/11, turning it into our longest-running war, and we’re still trying to get out of it. Bureaucracy got a boost with the creation of massive new agencies such as the Department of Homeland Security and the Transportation Security Administration, and defense-related budgets soared. Large-scale clandestine surveillance of American citizens became the norm.
Our focus on Middle East terrorists spilled over into everyday life, as people who simply appeared Muslim were attacked, and some were severely injured or killed. That fixation would have other effects four years later. Juliette Kayyem, a lecturer in public policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School, told the World Economic Forum: “The response to Hurricane Katrina made us realize that a nation that focused too much on a single threat was not able to save an American city from drowning.”
As Americans, we have the tendency to go a bit overboard when it comes to fighting an enemy, real or imagined, to the point that no other danger exists to us. Most recently, while so much has been focused on illegal immigration across the southern border, we’ve ignored more pressing threats, including the rise of white nationalism and domestic terrorism. We’ve also ignored vital facts on illegal immigration, especially the inconvenient ones such as that the majority of illegal immigrants come in legally through ports of entry and overstay their visas, rather than sneaking across the Rio Grande in the dead of night.
I’d like to think we’ve grown as people since that day 18 years ago, and some have, consistently looking past surface details to see the humanity of others. They think of others before themselves, and endeavor to be kind and truthful. Others of us continue to fight singular wars against whatever scares us, redirecting resources toward that, spreading fear, heeding only those voices that agree with us, and ignoring other dangers.
Until we can be honest with ourselves about the world around us, we’re doomed to repeat this cycle. This isn’t a perfect world, but it’s not as scary as some make it out to be either. As long as we continue to divide ourselves by partisanship, color and belief systems, we won’t grow. We will, though, provide plenty of fodder for future anthropologists when they try to figure out why we destroyed ourselves.
Yes, this is a depressing subject, and not just because it’s been the age of a high school senior since it happened. Next week, I promise to be much cheerier.
Speaking of, I’m still collecting stories about the foods that make you think of home. You can send them by email to firstname.lastname@example.org, or leave them in the comments below.