Twenty Years Ago

One astute student in my college comp course raised her hand and asked, “Professor? What was it like before 911?” Her inquiry startled me since in the two decades since that Tuesday morning, not one of my thousands of students has ever asked.

I teach freshmen and sophomores in their late teens. Some are in the military, some are parents, a few are married, most have jobs, some play NCAA sports, some have known great loss, others have traveled extensively while sitting next to them are peers who never made it past the county line—adults, all of them. Yet all of them have one thing in common: None of them was yet born on September 11th, 2001.

“What was it like?”

I was born in 1960, almost twenty years after Pearl Harbor. And while I have studied the depression, read many books both fiction and historical about the twenties and the thirties, seen movies, listened to my parents, my teachers, I have always had some undercurrent of certainty that none of those cultural references rendered for me what made life different before the bombings.

But I could tell my student truly wished to understand. I knew no single phrase would suffice, and the barrage of examples such as the differences in traveling through airports and across borders before and after seems to come up short. The only truism I could muster was the most difficult to convey: That all of us back then, before, had absolute confidence in the fact that as Americans we could decide for ourselves what life would be like, for us and for this nation, and after 911 that seemed to disappear.

“But the contrast,” I told her and the now-attentive class, “isn’t in believing one way of life and then not being able to believe in it anymore when we were all suddenly thrown into a world where people fly planes into our neighbors’ office spaces. Prior to 911, the idea of others infiltrating our ability to choose our own destiny simply wasn’t in our vocabulary to begin with. So it isn’t as simple as saying we believed in a different way of life; it just was a way of life, undefinable and without comparison. We were above and beyond all possibilities of attacks to the point where it wasn’t yet part of our lexicon; it simply did not yet exist. Even to say “Thank God that stuff doesn’t happen here” was nothing short of ridiculous. We lived our lives separate from the rest of the world, including Europe, and no one actually even thought about it. 911 forced us to understand the way of life we had lost by imposing upon us a new way of living.”

Jihad was not a well-known word. Terrorism was not an experienced event except in a few small cases, and even then, the largest terrorist event we watched unfold in Oklahoma City was carried out by Americans. The Saudi’s were “friends,” Afghanistan was Russia’s problem, Gitmo was a movie plot by Aaron Sorkin. Travel worries focused on mechanical errors not maniacal extremists; being an American abroad meant you’d at least be given the shadow of the doubt when things went wrong. So much so, in fact, that traveling abroad felt relatively safe, let alone traveling to New York or DC. If your plane was hijacked, you just assumed you’d be heading with the bad buys to some Caribbean Island.

Before 911 there was no Homeland Security, and airline captains might regularly wander about the cabin. Before then, the World Trade Centers were not nearly as profound as they are today; before 911 it’s not that we thought of ourselves as untouchable by extremists; it just wasn’t relevant at all. Our biggest foray into the Middle East was the Gulf War, where we lost a total of 219 American lives, and thirty-five of them were from friendly fire. So as tragic as those loses remain, that was for the entire Desert Storm event. And after the World Trade Center bombings of 1993 which took three lives, those who discussed the issue at all simply figured that the terrorists had taken their best shot, failed, and went home.

Before 911 we talked about the promise and hope for what’s next. In that world before fear of extremists with demented minds for a troubled cause, we spoke of peace treaties, not waterboarding; of trade policies, not cave-dwelling terrorists.

My student almost seemed to understand. I knew I could never get her to comprehend the atmosphere of before, the lightness in the air, the different kind of stress, softer. I could tell her how driving to Canada simply meant having your license and answering a few questions. And going to Mexico and back was rarely met with more than a wave and a glace at my license. I could have told her I used to walk my parents right to the gate when they traveled somewhere by plane, and it wasn’t unusual to help them board with their stuff, so long as I was off the plane before they took off. It all seemed so trivial, in retrospect.

So instead, I told her this: I was sitting in my office while my class did group work. It was a Tuesday morning, the sky dark blue, and a worker came by telling everyone to put on the televisions in the classrooms. Together we watched the second plane hit, the first tower fall, then the second, and we left. This is a military area, and many of the students had family who would deploy in the following days. We didn’t know just how widespread the attack had been, so my officemate and I walked across campus in silence, suddenly aware of the irrelevance of grading papers, of discussing Virginia Wolfe. And we drove home and played with our children; children just a few years older than my students today.

“For a little while,” I said, “we all were totally unified, and we all appreciated the small things in life again.

“And you don’t, anymore?” she asked. “Have you gotten used to a world where they might do it again?”

I looked at her and knew she’d probably get an A in the class. “No. I haven’t,” I told her. “But I do spend a lot more time going for walks, watching sunrises. Does that answer your initial question?

“Yes,” she responded. “Yes, it does.”  

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