Hard to believe 15 years have passed since that awful September morning. I remember being in my office preparing for a senior staff meeting when a colleague rushed in to say that an airplane had crashed into the World Trade Center in New York. My immediate reaction was to call around to make sure that we didn’t have any Development or Admissions staff members in that vicinity that morning. I turned on my tiny black-and-white portable TV and saw the image of the first tower burning. It seemed like an accident. I went on with the staff meeting. But after a few minutes, the security director rushed into the meeting, exclaiming that there were bombs possibly going off in downtown DC and more explosions in New York. We immediately left the meeting and rushed into Social Hall where the only available color television (remember, this was a time before the widespread availability of the internet, network broadcasts were still the main way to get news!) was already blaring the dreadful images of both towers burning, and the sickening replay of the second plane hitting the building over and over again. We then heard the Pentagon was hit, and another plane was missing and we had no idea whether it was coming our way. Soon hundreds of students, faculty and staff streamed into Social Hall; rumors were rampant, people were crying and in shock, and for a moment I also felt totally panicked — nothing in the “presidential playbook” mentioned how to lead the campus community in the event of planes flying into buildings, a national attack of unknown origin. Soon, someone set up a microphone, I did my best to ask everyone to stay calm as we learned more about what was going on. We opened all offices and phone lines for people to call home, to make plans if some had to stay overnight. The campus community responded beautifully and with compassion for those who had relatives in New York or at the Pentagon. By nightfall we knew the horrific story of terrorism and destruction and thousands of lives lost to the madness of Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden. I went home utterly exhausted but stayed up for hours watching those replays of planes flying into the towers, maybe hoping that someone would come on the TV to say it was all just a show. It wasn’t.
We have this phrase about the “aftermath of September 11” as if that was a time now past. In fact, we are still adrift and buffeted hard on the waves created by that catastrophic moment, really still cresting and falling across the first ripples from the crashing planes disrupting the superficially calm waters of the lake of American life circa 2001. The toxic waste from that catastrophe polluted the depths of that lake soon covered with a sheen of ugliness spreading like so much oil and jet fuel and debris fields strewn with unfathomable grief and anger and desire for revenge.
We lost so much on that terrible day. Nearly 3,000 immediate deaths, 6,000 injured, thousands more dead and injured in the wars that ensued in Iraq and Afghanistan and the effects of the toxic dust on lungs and hearts and lifespans of the first responders and others who somehow managed to clean-up the mess.
We lost something else as well, something that plagues the American disposition to this very day. I will not call it “innocence” because America hardly could claim innocence before 9/11/2001 — the most powerful nation in the world, then and now, hardly was a naif, and all of the back-story reports since that day tell us that the intelligence failures and willful arming of various bad actors over the years came home to haunt us.
What we lost on 9/11 was a certain American kind of optimism despite challenges, of confidence in the face of adversity, of belief in our national strength that we did not have to prove through belligerence because we once believed we simply were powerful enough to prevail against all odds. In the instance of planes striking towers and the Pentagon, and flying into that lonely field in Pennsylvania, we became besieged, fearful, suspicious, vengeful and fundamentally doubtful and pessimistic about America’s strength and likely future. Our leaders played on those negative emotions — “Be ready” became the constant slogan of pessimism and fear. “See something, say something,” turned into the mantra of suspicion and division in American life. We can’t go to the airport without being reminded that we might not land again. We wake up each morning wondering if this is the day that something truly awful will happen again.
Awful things have happened again, of course, and the terrorist wave of ISIS-inspired attacks picked up the thread of constant threat and fearmongering from the older and more organized Al Qaeda days. But terrorism is not an army nor particularly well-organized; it’s whole purpose is destabilization and disruption. A fearful nation turns on itself. The greatest weapon the terrorists use is not the explosive vest but the spawning of reactionaries and demagogues who destroy our fundamental American values while claiming to offer salvation for the nation.
The worst possibly after-effect of 9/11 is the venomous rhetoric against Muslims, the shameful attacks on immigrants and refugees, the encouragement of racial and religious oppression that pits communities against each other, that pledges to build walls to keep some people out while, in fact, hemming-in the people who are infected with so much bitter hatred against the others they seek to exclude. The rise of the right-wing movement known as Alt-Right crystallizes the ultimate consequence of 9/11 in the formation of a political movement that is unabashedly about white supremacy and the exclusion, if not elimination, of people who do not fit their narrow definition of human life.
The 2016 presidential election has torn wide the scrim of normalcy that this nation tried to piece together to cover itself after the awful days of 2001. The superficial rhetoric in this campaign — encouraged by irresponsible media who care more about ratings than substance — spends countless hours on the wrong things, whether poorly managed emails or stubby fingers or coughing or presidential spouses. Those are not relevant to the choice before us. We have to choose between someone who blatantly and constantly plays on fear and division, hatred and racism and phobias of all kinds to win support and power; or someone who knows that the ultimate success of the United States depends on effective diplomacy carried out with confidence and optimism. We have to choose between someone who only discovered African Americans last week, or someone who has worked in legislative and advocacy positions to enact fair and just laws and policies to advance equal opportunity and justice for all people. We have to choose between someone who wants to build walls and curtail human rights or someone who knows that the best kind of society is one that lifts up all people regardless of their personal circumstances. When the poorest among us have better lives, we all have better lives.
This election is an opportunity to move more confidently away from the lingering undertow of the 9/11 maelstrom; or it’s a risk that we will be pulled underwater again, swirling lower and lower into the abyss of bitter nationalism, xenophobia, racial hatred and curtailment of our own rights in the name of security. The choice is ours, and will will all have to live with the consequences.
Whatever your choice, if you are eligible, you must VOTE.