I’ve watched several documentaries this week on the September 11 attacks on America. Can it really be 20 years since that terrible day?
There are certain dates that people of a certain age won’t forget. They remember where they were. The September 11 attacks is certainly an example.
I still remember where I was when I learned of the attack on the World Trade Center. I told the story the first time on this blog in 2004, this blog’s first year.
Back then, I worked second shift in TV. I had worked late on a project the night before — which was practically a daily occurrence back then. I got home late. But when you work second shift, your sleep habits are different.
Those of you who work 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. don’t go home and go to bed at 6 p.m., right? When I got home, probably well after midnight, I did what I always do. I watched some TV.
I’m sure I fell asleep on the sofa watching some mindless sitcom rerun.
A ringing telephone woke me up the next morning. Mom called to tell me a plane hit a building in New York. So I switched over to the Today show. When I saw the footage of the building and the plume of smoke, the strangest thing hit me. I remembered a newsreel I once saw dating back to 1945. Don’t ask me why I thought of that, of all things.
The newsreel told the story of a plane crash involving another New York skyscraper, the Empire State Building.
That case was an accident. It was a really foggy morning and the pilot, apparently, didn’t see the building.
But I realized as I looked at the footage just how clear the sky was that morning. No clouds. No fog. I guess I wasn’t ready to put two and two together just yet.
Then I knew the September 11 attacks were attacks.
As I watched the Today show, the second plane struck the second World Trade Center tower. Matt Lauer was interviewing NBC News Producer Elliott Walker who saw the immediate aftermath of the first plane’s impact.
“Oh! Another one just hit,” she said. “Something else just hit. A very large plane just flew directly over my building and there’s been another collision.”
There was a huge fireball, this time, from the second tower.
It wasn’t long after that when I saw Bryant Gumbel on CBS’s The Early Show react to a shot of the Pentagon on fire.
“Oh my goodness. Oh my goodness,” he said as everyone began processing footage of the huge plume of black smoke from one side of the building.
I knew I had to get to work, although I didn’t know what exactly I’d be doing.
You can read about my workday that day (and for the next few days) in that older post.
Does it seem like 20 years to you?
For me, most of the time, it doesn’t. I have to remind myself two decades have passed.
So much has changed since then. For the brief days and weeks after that day, I remember the nation coming together. We weren’t one party or another. We weren’t one race or another. Everyone was suddenly together. We were Americans.
I recall Dan Rather appearing on The Late Show with David Letterman days after the attack. He broke down a couple of times, clearly emotionally exhausted from the coverage. But of the coming War on Terror, he made a few disturbing predictions. He said this war would be unlike any war we’d fought in the past. He said America would have to be patient because it would a long, drawn-out war and wondered if the nation had the meddle to stomach a war with many, many casualties.
Back then, we assured ourselves we did.
As anyone should have been able to predict, we didn’t have the patience. It didn’t take long for the arguing to begin all over again.
So much has changed since then. Now, we’re more splintered than ever. We look for things to argue about whether they’re worth arguing about or not. We are keyboard warriors on social media, being as rude as we can possibly be.
The last president in particular seemed to delight in belittling those who disagreed more than any other president I can remember. He didn’t invent that practice. But he certainly helped make it seem far too appropriate to otherwise well-meaning people who should know better.
Crises seem to make us forget ourselves and actually think about ourselves as a bigger community.
It shouldn’t take a crisis, but usually, it seems to.
The biggest reminder I think about from 9/11 is that we can do so much better for each other than we do. The attitudes I’ve seen during the COVID-19 pandemic stand in stark contrast to the togetherness we felt 20 years ago.
I hope it won’t take another 9/11 before we come together again.