Saturday, September 11, 2021

Thoughts on the 20th Anniversary of 9/11

I visited the dentist for the first time since the pandemic began yesterday, and as I stared at the x-ray screen, especially the date stamp, I said, “Tomorrow’s 9/11”. And we both exchanged our stories from that day. She was a 7th grader then. I was in my sophomore year of high school.

My morning routine during high school years was: wash up, head down to the kitchen for a bite, and watch a few minutes of GMA/ABC News before walking to the school bus stop. When I turned on the TV, the special report was already underway, and started with the replay of the North Tower first. Ignoring the voice over from Peter Jennings (to this day, my favorite news anchor of all time) I reached the same conclusion as most others: what a horrific accident. That conclusion was short-lived, as it cut straight to the South Tower crash. On the bus, our driver who usually had the dial set to KISS Country, had the news feed on. We listened in horror and astonishment as one of the towers collapsed.

Growing up on the West Coast, it was difficult to not feel insulated from what goes on 3,000 miles away. Up until my first day reporting to college, I had never even set food on the East Coast. I think that held true for most of us, adults and children alike. We went to school that day, many tried to go about their business (as usual). At school, some teachers just had us turn on the TV to watch the live coverage, while others told us to focus on our classwork. Everyone had their own way of dealing (or not) with the unfolding tragedy.

Of the many things that changed for all of us since that day, a few things stand out:

  • Most of us started bringing cell phones to school.
  • A new chapter on “other-ness” was being written on being Muslim (or perceived as such) in America.
  • Friends from home know that Fresno is home to to a California Air National Guard wing, and fighter jet patrols were a regular and noticeable occurrence for some time afterward.
  • Visiting high-profile landmarks or traveling by air was never the same. I still do plenty of this, but there’s always a moment or two that my thoughts turn to “what if”.

Collective PTSD post-9/11 is real. Even though Fresno seemed like a world away from New York, DC, and Pennsylvania that day, a few punctuated occasions since have stood out in my own memory.

  • Flying to college for the first time, taking the LAX-BOS leg that was directly opposite UA 175’s BOS-LAX route. The fare was cheap because we were flying on 9/11/2004.
  • Visiting New York City (and Ground Zero) for the first time in my life, in 2007. No park, no memorial, no Freedom Tower - still just construction.
  • The 10th anniversary in 2011. I broke down while listening to the names being read aloud by the then-teenage children of those that perished.
  • Today, as I revisit all of these thoughts, but from the perspective of a father for the first time.

I suppose, the real legacy of 9/11 is that for those of us who witnessed it, regardless of proximity or the particular medium, is that this remains such a powerful event that “happened” as much in our minds as in real life. It is a sharp wound that while largely healed, caused a scar that will linger forever. In an otherwise divisive time, it’s also something that we share, such that even otherwise strangers can sit down, have a chat, and share some very personal memories of the day and its aftermath. For all of us who continue to be affected in ways big and small, I hope we never lose sight of the existence of our common experience.

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