Thursday, September 17, 2009

That September Morn

Terrorists crashed planes into my country the same year that I came of legal age. The horrific tragedy of September 11 shook me from my childhood illusions of security; the same might be said for the nation as a whole.

Back then my mindset inhabited a world apart. When word-of-mouth reached me that a plane had collided with a skyscraper in New York City, I instantly imagined a small biplane flown by an amateur pilot capable of such error. A commercial jet? Obviously some sort of technical malfunction. The idea of enemies with hate in their hearts purposely flying a plane into a building to kill thousands of innocent civilians -- I simply could not naturally countenance such a revelation.

Even if it was the truth.

A good friend, now in the U.S. Army, mentioned that it had possibly been an attack by Osama bin Laden's terrorist organization, Al Qaeda. If those names had even registered with me before, I had only the foggiest notions of who they were.

Not until five hours after the attack did my paradigm shift sufficiently to comprehend the enormity of the day. I spent that Tuesday at a rural camp in central Texas. There was no need to cancel the pre-planned school retreat; my classmates and I were arguably safer there than in the city. As the powerless population elsewhere sat glued to their televisions, we breathed free and buffered from the terror in our remote and isolated location.

I can vividly remember the surprise I felt at my chemistry teacher not only finding a television cart, but also wheeling it out with a working cable connection during lunch. I ate on the other side of the cafeteria, avoiding the gravity of information I would inevitably receive as well as the throng engrossed by visions of smoke billowing from a burning skyscraper. Finally, after throwing away remnants of my meal, I allowed myself to be exposed to the news.

The sight of the second plane's dark outline disappearing into the back of the tower hit me deep in my bowels like the force of the impact itself. As the front face of the building flashed into a fireball, my soul thrummed in the same bass reverberatory reaction as when a monster in a horror film is first revealed to the camera. In that moment, evil of the sort I thought confined to fiction became real and present in my world. In that moment, I first understood the terror that we faced.

In that moment, I shed the innocence made possible by a father's protection and became a man in a dangerous world. My mind steeled to face the future. The conventional wisdom for the entirety of my life thus far -- to cooperate with hijackers in order to limit casualties -- immediately became ludicrous and incredible; no American would ever sit quietly during an attempt to seize a plane again. Not from the moment the first plane crashed into the World Trade Center. The heroes of Flight 93 proved that.

The attack awakened us to our weaknesses; as a nation we poured into churches and chapels for prayer vigils. The attack burned away dross to reveal our strength; as a nation we rallied together, unified, proud of our fire fighters and civilian heroes, proud to be American. The world looked on in awe and surprise at our sudden resolve. We would not back down from such a despicable foe. We would not be ashamed. Patriotism surged, with flags growing in every front yard, on every car bumper, and through every business window. The attack had the opposite effect of terror.

At least, as I saw the flags and the prayer and the patriotism, I thought these truths for me reflected on all of my fellow Americans as well.

But though an airplane cabin became from that point the least safe location in America for a terrorist, we stood by as the government who could not originally protect us banned fingernail clippers and drinking water. We exchanged vigilance in our communities for a meaningless color system of threat levels. We allowed elitists to decree that images from that day should no longer be televised, lest we continue to hold anger for the Muslim terrorists that attacked us. We tolerated fellow Americans rationalizing the cowardly, indefensible acts of terrorism as something the States had brought onto themselves. We squabbled over where and how the government should protect us abroad, all the while quiet as it seeped into our privacy to protect us at home.

Nearly a decade ago, Muslim terrorists hijacked planes and crashed them into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, attacking our liberty and shattering our illusion of security. Eight years later, I wonder whether the American people, in response, bought a new illusion of security at the price of liberty. I wonder whether what the terrorists could never take from us through violence we released freely on our own.

Still, I remember the unity felt with my fellow Americans as we steeled ourselves against a despicable foe. I remember the humility of mourning and of woundedness as a nation. And I hope that America will not fall into a dream of security under government, but will forever remain the land of the free and the home of the brave, so that future generations might sing another verse of the "Star-Spangled Banner":

O say did you see, on that September morn,
When crav'n strikes from the air stopped the globe in its turning?
When through smoke-blackened skies, people looked on forlorn
And, in terror, we watched as the towers fell burning?
But! In Pennsylvanian field, in firemen heroes revealed,
We proved to the world that free men don't yield;
And from ev'ry man's door a sea of star-spangled banners waved
In the land of the free and the home of the brave!


  1. I hope that America will not fall into a dream of security under government, but will forever remain the land of the free and the home of the brave...

    I sincerely hope so too.

    Great writing - thanks for your contribution