(Reposted and expanded from this post way back in 2004.)
It was fall, and school was just getting into full swing. My senior year of college, full of 400-level classes and theater and a girl with whom I was utterly smitten.
We, she and I, were getting lunch. Walking from the school cafeteria counters to the beverage island in the middle of the dining hall. Two small cups of Dr. Pepper, one of chocolate milk, balanced on my plastic tray, trying not to spill.
The nearby television was tuned to MTV, as Kurt Loder (or someone similar) was discussing the death of Aaliyah, the R&B star who died in a plane crash just a few weeks before. She and I chatted about the tributes and the memorial services that dominated the airwaves.
She mentioned that she heard one announcer say that Aaliyah’s death would be our generation’s “where were you when” moment. Our parents would have the Kennedy assasination, our grandparents would have Pearl Harbor, and we just had Aaliyah. I thought that was a bit of an overstatement (no offense intended to the dead), and that it would be pretty sad if the death of a pop singer were “the” landmark news moment of our lives.
She agreed. “I was more impacted when Kurt Cobain died. There were girls at school who cried all day, when they found out.”
I didn’t share that memory; my upbringing was devoutly devoid of pop music. But I understood and agreed, “Yeah, clearly Cobain had more of an impact.”
We sat at the table, watching the large-screen TV in the caff, and the topic shifted to homework and other things.
That was Monday.
The next morning, my roommate Josh and I were getting ready for the 9:30 class we both had (Children’s Theatre? Scenic Design? Something in the theater building.)
I was perched on my dorm-room desk chair, Mr. Rogers-style, about to pull on my socks, when Josh uncharacteristically turned on the TV (something he never did in the morning). And I saw it. I saw the world change in an instant.
I saw a mighty city in flames. I saw the great tower shudder. I saw the smoke and debris.
Then the image of the second plane vanishing into the side of the second tower. To this day, I don’t know if that was a live video or a replay, but either way, it felt sudden. Jarring.
I sat slack-jawed and half-socked, unable to move. Josh dropped down on his bed, stunned. I heard him gasp. We sat silent, in our small dorm room on the small campus of a small Baptist college in the wide plains of middle America, and we watched in horror as Americans were murdered en masse.
After about ten minutes, I awoke from my shocked state. “I…guess…we need to get to class.” Josh nodded. I finished getting dressed, and we walked together in silence from the dorm to the communications building. On our way, we met our professor speeding toward and then past us, calling over her shoulder, “Meeting in the black box.”
We walked into the small theater, and saw the other students huddled in the seats, in twos and threes, some crying, some consoling, all speaking in hushed tones. We sat. I could think of nothing to say. I was numb. Hollow. As if my spirit had been pulled from me. Mrs. B, the other theatre prof, stood and said a few words. She said that now was a time to pray for our country, and for the families of the victims. We didn’t know how many, but we knew that countless were affected. We didn’t know what would happen next. We were afraid.
Our professor said that class was cancelled, and that we should spend the day praying. We prayed together as a group, and then dispersed. I walked out the glass doors of the building onto the recessed porch, half-stumbling. Some had been wondering aloud if this was the beginning of a war. I wondered the same thing. How many more cities would be attacked? Would there be a retaliation? Would there be a draft?
Most of us ended up in the student “commons” building. There were a few hundred, all huddled around a large-screen TV, watching in silence. Many faces were tear-stained and puffy, drawn with horror.
I stayed there for most of the day, watching the same images over and over. Then the first tower fell. Later, its sister followed.
We could forget about Aaliyah and Kurt Cobain. We had our “moment.” Every one of us now had our story.
So many things we felt. So many things we wanted to say. Now, so many years after, we’re still trying to find the words.
It’s at this point in the original post that I concluded with a rousing “they didn’t just attack New York or DC–they attacked all of us” speech. And that’s still true. For one glorious, all-too-short moment, the partisan bickering was tabled in favor of bowed heads, clasped hands, and “How are you doing, neighbor?”
And now we’re here–17 years later. We’ve defeated Bin Laden and Saddam, and new terrorists and warlords have risen up to take their places. The War on Terror hasn’t ended; it’s just changed location and shape. Truth be told, it’s been largely forgotten by many Americans–white noise in a distracted culture.
Meanwhile, we’ve had three presidents, all of whom were/are vilified by their opponents and defended fiercely by their allies. I’m not going to argue over who was better or worse (though I do find it interesting how one went from being portrayed as literally the second coming of Hitler to now a beloved and even fondly-remembered statesman in some circles–the benefits of perspective, I guess).
In some ways, it feels like this country is on the verge of fracture, though I wonder sometimes if that’s really just social media and cable news talking. Then again, moderation has fallen out of fashion. On the street corners and in the marketplace, everyone speaks in chyrons.
I don’t have answers, either. I’m still trying to find the words.
If there was a single silver lining on that dark day 17 years ago, perhaps it’s this: For one brief moment, we remembered what we had in common, and we realized that there was something more vital, more fundamental than the petty, partisan bickering that was already so deeply ingrained in the national conversation in the summer of 2001.
One nation, under God, indivisible.
May it always be.