This is the first September 11 since I started “Great” Thoughts. I remember the day nine years ago as vividly anyone else. Like Pearl Harbor for my dad’s generation and the John F. Kennedy assassination for my mother’s (Yes, you read that right…there was a 20-year age difference between my parents), September 11, 2001 is the where-were-you-when moment. Alissa and I, fourteen months into our marriage, had just moved into a new home. We rented the bottom floor and shared the kitchen of a split-level house while the single owner lived above. The phone rang at about 6:15 AM (Pacific). Of course, that’s one of those times where a phone call can’t be good. Alissa pounced on the phone. It was my mom calling from Los Angeles saying something about New York being under attack. I only caught Alissa’s side of the conversation, but what I heard was enough for me to know that something was clearly very wrong. I headed for the living room and simultaneously grabbed the other handset and turned on the TV. Well, plug 6:15 AM (Pacific) into the timeline of that day and you know that I was greeted with the image of one tower burning and a replay of the second plane crash.
Maybe it was my mom’s use of the words “under attack”; maybe it was the fact that both towers were already in flames; maybe it was having read Tom Clancy’s novel “Debt of Honor” in which a disgruntled Japan Airlines pilot crashed a 747 into a joint session of Congress, but my first coherent thought was “We’re at war.”
The rest of that day is a blur or memories. There was Jim Miklaszewski reporting from a stricken Pentagon, the panicked reports that as many as 20 more planes were suspect, the reports of hasty evacuations from the White House and the Capitol, and finally, the report of a crash in Pennsylvania. Alissa’s office was on top of Seattle’s tallest building which had been closed, so she was staying home. I decided to stay home as well. We watched the towers collapse, one by one, and soon the word began to filter in of the loss of so many first responders. We just sat and watched those horrific images over and over hour after terrible, grief-filled hour. Anger, fear, rage and uncertainty competed for dominance, but nothing could overcome the unutterable sadness that I felt.
I remember stepping outside, hearing a roar and seeing an F-15 over Mountlake Terrace. I remember the reports from Afghanistan of a rocket strike by the Northern Alliance and the inexplicable collapse of Building 7. I guess I paid close enough attention to the news, because the idea that Al Quada was behind the attack was a no-brainer.
The following Saturday, we went to Seattle Center and laid flowers on the massive memorial at the International Fountain. I remember a huge flag hanging between two hook and ladder trucks and police and firefighters graciously accepting the public’s condolences on the loss of their brothers and sisters in New York. I remember Sikhs standing prominently in solidarity and American Muslims pleading with us to believe that they stood with us, not with the madmen, with the terrorists who attacked us.
We went to church the next day. Our church met in a Seventh Day Adventist Church, and I noticed something that morning. You see, the way the sanctuary was set up, the only image of the cross is a stained glass window on the back wall of the balcony visible only to the pastor and worship leaders. The front of the sanctuary displays a beautiful stained glass window with an image of Jesus above two angels who are praying at the right and left of a Bible. (You can see it here.) On this Sunday, however, that image was covered, blocked by a large American flag. The symbolism was disturbing.
You see, the narrative of those days is that the country pulled together. President Bush’s approval ratings soared. The strides in peace that occurred during the 1990’s had evaporated. The absurdly-named end of history had been extended indefinitely. We were in the post 9-11 world.
I wanted to trust Bush, but I simply couldn’t. I had never considered his presidency legitimate, and I certainly did not believe he had the skills, the intellect, or the temperament to guide our nation through the troubled waters in which we found ourselves. I never thought that going into Afghanistan, or the declaration of a “War on Terror” was a good idea. I will concede that a reasonable person could make the case that the invasion was justified, but not that it was wise.
I had a problem with invading Afghanistan, but what really bothered me was what we were doing to ourselves with things like the Patriot Act. I didn’t like the idea that failure to display a flag made one somehow suspect, or that you had to watch what you said or read. That’s not America, and it worried me that we were damaging ourselves more than any terrorist attack, any external force could ever do.
I remember a few days before Christmas, Alissa and I were sitting in a café at SeaTac Airport. You see, prior to 9-11 we had planned to take the train to L.A. for Christmas. As a show of support for the beleaguered airlines, we changed our plans and decided to fly. We were three months into the post 9-11 world, and I was becoming troubled by our nation’s response to the attacks.
Alissa and I were still newlyweds and we were still getting used to traveling together. She’s an extrovert and likes to talk. I prefer to get to the airport or train station and sit and wait, maybe read a book or something. She was becoming frustrated with my silence, and in encouraging me to talk made the usually-dangerous suggestion that I talk about politics. “No, “I said. “It would be a bad idea for me to talk politics here.”
The words made me sick. I was buying into the fear. I was buying into the idea that I could not sit in a public facility and speak my mind about our government. I felt like Bin Ladin was winning.
I hoped I was wrong about Bush and his cabal, but I believe subsequent events proved me right. Bush was, at best, incompetent, and at worst a criminal trying to exploit the fear and anger for political gain. Fortunately, I failed to account for the resilience of the American people. We gradually started to shake off our shock. We gradually started to stand up and think for ourselves and question our government. We saw the lie in the Iraq war, late, but we saw it nonetheless. We changed course. If there is evidence of that it is in the fact that we overwhelmingly elected a guy whose middle name is Hussein and whose last name rhymes with Osama. If you think that’s a silly measure, think about all the time False News “accidentally” confused Osama and Obama in their captions. Think about all the McCain surrogates ranting about “Barrack Hussein Obama”.
My point is actually quite simple, and one that we can take to heart in our personal lives as well as in our life as a nation. When something happens to us, when someone does something to us, we have a choice. We can react with fear, with anger, with hatred, or we can react with thought and intelligence. We have a choice between reacting the way enemies like Bin Ladin want us to, or we can look to the angels of our better nature and our highest ideals. Terrorists want us to react to the actions with terror, with fear. They want us to abandon our ideals. They want to shake our faith in those ideas that we hold most dear, that make us stronger than any army ever could. No matter what others do to us, no matter what happens to us, we always have a choice about how we react. As we remember the people who died nine years ago today, and those who have died in wars precipitated by those horrific attacks, we must remember that we always must choose between fear and faith.