Friday, September 11, 2009

Where Were You When Everything Changed?

On September 11, 2001, terrorists hijacked four airplanes and destroyed our innocence and security. Now, eight years later, people reflect back not only to the horrible events of that day, but to where they were when they heard the news of the attack. For those removed geographically from New York City or Washington, D.C., the attacks still provoked anger, sadness and a torrent of emotions: helplessness, bitterness, wrath.
On Facebook people shared their personal recollections to where they were when they first learned terrorists steered commercial aircraft into the World Trade Center and Pentagon.
For me, 9/11 didn't begin with watching plumes of smoke over Manhattan or watching airplanes veer off course to their intended targets.
It began with cleaning the garage.
That morning, after a fight with my wife (now ex-wife) I decided to burn energy by tack;ling the messy garage. She'd gone to work early and since I worked the night shift at a daily newspaper, I had the whole day to kill. It was a beautiful, warm early September day, the kind of clear, blue sky days reserved for the end of summer. I moved boxes in the cluttered garage, chucked things I no longer needed and swept the floor which was littered with dead leaves and dried bug corpses.
It's gross, but just how clean is your garage?
After an hour, the place looked orderly and neat, with all of the tools organized and the garden implements tucked safely away on their shelves.
I went to the kitchen to fetch some water when the phone rang. It was my then-spouse telling me that "something big happened."
Not knowing what it was, I remarked, "Was the president assassinated or something?"
She sounded serious and told me to "turn on the TV. Something happened in New York."
I switched on CNN and saw the skyline of New York City and the World Trade Center. A large hole ripped in the side of the steel and glass skyscraper showed like an ugly blemish with black smoke pouring out. I learned then that an airplane had struck the building.
Probably just a drunk pilot, I thought. I turned on other stations and the coverage played on every single station, even Animal Planet. When they interrupt a show about Galapagos tortoises mating to cover a news story, you know it's serious.
Just then, as I tried to make sense of what was happening, another airplane hit the remaining tower, creating a fiery explosion.
Re-watching the video of the second airplane strike, it seems surreal that such devastation was meted upon us, and hearing the screams of those on the tape I could imagine the utter horror and fear they experienced watching the aircraft slam into the World Trade Center.
Yet words cannot convey the awful sensation of helplessness and rising anger after witnessing that event, whether in Manhattan or on television, yet the news coverage that day tried to make sense of it all. As information came forward, we learned of the strike on the Pentagon and the crashed plane in a field near Shanksville, Pa. We learned of Osama bin Laden and his shadowy Al-Qaeda organization, of young men who were living among us wielding boxcutters to hijack the planes and steer them to their fiery destinations. More importantly, we learned of civilians who fought back against the hijackers and who many claim brought Flight 93 down before it could strike the U.S. Capitol Building.
I seethed with rage when I learned of Al-Qaeda. My father called and I ranted how we should nuke the Middle East and lob a thermonuclear missile right on Mecca during Ramadan. I wanted the Middle East to burn in a hellfire holocaust for what they did to my country.
That day conjures up so many things: the chaos of people running through the streets, the skyscrapers falling and plumes of smoke and ash, of airplanes screaming overhead, of the bravery of firemen, rescue workers and police officers. Though we lost something precious through a sacrifice by fire, we emerged from September 11 a more patriotic and unified nation, where ordinary people stood in line to donate blood, where volunteering and consoling those in pain came naturally. More than that, we became a nation hell-bent on revenge, summoned to a higher purpose by a tragic destiny.
So each year we gather to remember the fury of that day, and through our recollections and grieving, we understand that we are a country that cannot be killed while we slumber. We did not surrender to foreign fanatics who use violence to intimidate and make us afraid. In between all of the patriotic symbols of the World Trade Center, the yellow ribbons, the flags and "Let's Roll!" slogans, there's something deeper from that day. We changed as a nation and the world became a little more dangerous with madmen lurking in darkened places plotting against us.
Now it's a time not for patriotic hyperbole, but for solemn remembrance.
It is a time of reflection, of recalling not just those who had died but how mighty a nation we are for refusing to submit to terror.

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