Every year, I think I’m not going to write about it, but then I start looking back. I look at the pictures people post. The memories of where they were. The footage. This year I came across some of the most intense video of the events of that day you’ve probably never seen. I know I hadn’t:
And so of course, it got me thinking about my own experience of the day.
I’m a New Yorker. I’m not from the city, but I was born in New York State, and spent half of my childhood there. I’ve always thought of New York as “home”. But upstate New York is, and has been for some time, an economic wasteland. When I was getting ready to graduate from college in 2001, I knew I didn’t want to go back. I was finishing a double major in theology and communications, and I had no idea how I was going to find a job there. I had applied to teach English in Japan with a friend of mine, but when we weren’t both offered the job, we decided to move to Phoenix with another friend who was getting an apartment there.
I arrived in Arizona that June, and had found a job with the phone company by July. It wasn’t the exactly what I was looking for, but it was something, and it paid better than any job I’d had up to that time. The offices were nice, set on an upper floor of one of the city’s skyrises. (As it turns out, it would also be the job where, providentially, I would meet Jamie, my future wife — but that’s a story for another time.) In the end, though, I only lasted about two months. I couldn’t do it. It was a high-pressure sales environment where deceiving customers seemed to be the only way people could hit their expected numbers. I felt that I had no choice but to quit.
I started looking for another job. Started hoping I could find something that was a little closer to my field. Application after application went out, but no luck. Finally, I managed to land an interview with a graphic design company. I remember telling God in prayer that if this job didn’t come through, I was going to take that as a sign that it was time to pack up and head back east and figure out a new plan.
And then, that fateful Tuesday morning, I was in my bed, asleep, when one of my roommates, Eddie, came barreling into the room, not even dressed. He had been in the process of getting ready for work — Arizona being three hours behind East Coast time during the Summer — when the attacks had started.
“Dude!” He yelled. “They’re bombing New York!!”
He ran back into the other room, and I tried to clear my head of sleep and process what he was saying. I followed him into our sparsely furnished living room, where the TV was tuned to the news. I got there about a minute before the second plane hit the South Tower.
He called into work and said he was taking the day. We sat and watched for as long as we could, until everything they were saying was just a repeat. We didn’t speak much, other than to make occasional perplexed exclamations about how this could be happening. I made phone calls to loved ones, and we expressed our mutual shock and dismay. Finally, Eddie and I got dressed and headed down to a local parish where a special Mass was being offered because of the day’s events. It was a huge parish, and it was absolutely packed. It was a pretty amazing thing to see.
On our way home, we were realized we were starving, and so we swung by a little Mexican and grabbed a couple of burritos. We ate them in silence in his car on the way home, listening to more news on the radio.
“It feels so weird to me,” I finally said, “that we’re just sitting here eating burritos, driving down the road, the sun is shining, and everything seems just normal and fine. But it isn’t.” I couldn’t wrap my head around it. Later that evening, I headed to a nearby gas station and picked up a copy of the Arizona Republic special edition for the day. The cover read, “TERROR: ‘Thousands’ dead as hijacked jets slam Trade Center, Pentagon”. I still have that newspaper in a box with other memories, just like my grandmother, God rest her soul, had the one she got the day Pearl Harbor was bombed. She never forgot that day, and I’ll never forget 9/11.
A couple days later, I had packed all my things into the back of my beat up old Pontiac station wagon and was ready to head back east. I had checked in with the design company, and they told me that while they had been interested in giving me the job, nobody knew where the economy was going to go. They had put a freeze on new hires until the dust settled. I’d made a deal with God, so I knew what to do. And to be honest, I was aching to go back. I may not have been from the city, but New York — my home — had been attacked, and I wanted to be there.
As I drove across the country with an American flag decal displayed on the inside of my back window, I began noticing how many other cars had flags, too. Every time I saw one, I felt a solidarity that’s hard to express. My car still had New York plates — the old ones, with the Statue of Liberty right in the middle — and I was so proud to be seen with them. Every place I stopped for gas, or for food, there was a sobriety in the air. An unspoken sense that we were all in this together, and that it meant something. The closest thing I can compare it to is being part of a family on a special occasion, or being on a football team during a game. The latter is probably more apt, because family is always family, but when you’re on a team, strangers — guys you may not even like day to day– become your brothers once you’re out on the field. It’s probably why so many young men joined the military right then. They wanted to be part of something bigger than themselves. Something that would take the fight to the enemy and not let it happen again.
What I didn’t realize, driving home over those three days, was what had really changed. The world I grew up in, the childhood spent walking the streets of the small Connecticut town where I spent my elementary school years without supervision, the excitement of the dawn of the digital age, the beloved figures of Ronald Regan as president of the United States and John Paul II as pope, was at an end. Nothing would ever be so sure again. Nothing would ever feel as safe.
Two months after the 9/11 attacks, Jamie would move out to New York, too. A year after that, she moved to Northern Virginia, just outside of DC. Before I could follow her there, and eventually work up the nerve to ask her to marry me, the DC Sniper attacks began. As she walked to the bus stop, or to the Metro, she would wonder if today might be the day that she’d find herself in the crosshairs. Once, when I was visiting her, I was walking along the side of the road, and a white van drove by, just like the one being described by police. Someone leaned out the window and yelled, “BANG!” just as they passed me, and I heard him laughing after I jumped as they drove on.
This became our lives. Our experience. Always wondering when the next thing would come. Always on edge. We have become so accustomed now to metal detectors and security checks and the new misery of flying and the never-ending promise of terrorism that we’re different now. Do you remember what it was like when you could walk loved ones right up to their gate on a day they had to fly, or meet a friend in an airport restaurant for lunch when they were coming through town on a layover?
In a pre-9/11 world, I wonder if we would have been nearly as complacent, as a society, when Black Lives Matter started shooting cops? Would we have been as restrained when neo-fascists became a thing, or when neo-communists started beating people in our streets? Would we have ever seen coming the uncontested demolition of our historical statues and the undisguised suppression of speech? Would we have ever believed that in the aftermath of attack after attack in the name of Allah, we’d be so afraid to say the words “Islamic terror”? Could we have imagined that Europe would willingly surrender itself to becoming a dhimmi state?
The millennials who are largely responsible for the violence in our new domestic protest movements all grew up in this post-9/11 world. If they are 25 today, they were 9 years old when it happened. If they’re 18 today, they were 2 then. They have never known the world I grew up in. They have never known the America of my youth, where people may have disagreed, but they trusted one another to do the right thing, and the most important arguments of childhood seemed to be about which Garbage Pail Kid was better, whether GoBots or Transformers would win in a fight, or when the next Star Wars movie was coming out. We were taught to love our country, not to hate it and everything it was founded to represent. The promotion of a self-loathing society had won small victories then, but when we began refusing to blame the ideologies responsible for such a heinous attack on our homeland because it wasn’t politically correct to do so, I think we crossed a Rubicon.
How will we ever fully understand how this event shaped our children? How it shaped us?
9/11 was a significant moment in the birth of a new era. A new spirit of a new age that pervades everything. As we look now at the state of things, how can we not see how far things have fallen in the sixteen years since? The world is in incredible turmoil, and the Church along with it. The realities we face do not just threaten us, but we are told we cannot even call them by name. Everything we knew has been threatened; much of what protected us has come, like those towers, tumbling down, leaving us permanently changed.
At some point, the dust has to settle. At some point, we have to begin again. Before we can, though, we have to want to be a part of something bigger than ourselves again. Only then can we begin to rebuild.
Please, God, may that day come soon.