The day everything changed: Fifteen years after 9/11

I remember exactly where I was the moment I heard about the 9/11 terrorist attacks– and so do you. I was in 7th grade at Peachtree Charter Middle School in P.E. class, dressed out in the school’s standard gray t-shirt and navy shorts. I was standing with a group of girls on the kickball field, and one of them asked “Do you think they’re flying over us?”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

She replied, “You haven’t heard? Somebody flew a plane into the World Trade Center.”

At that point in the day, the second tower had not been hit yet and no questions had been answered about the attacks. P.E. was my first class of the day in middle school, and by fifth period the school was emptying out as petrified parents came to save their children from terrorists. My science teacher decided that instead of finishing our lesson on the ventricles in heart, that we should listen to National Public Radio. However, I didn’t get to listen for long, because my parents came and got me from school (their anniversary is September 10 and they had taken the day off of work). I remember riding in the van to go home, but I don’t remember much else from that day. What I do remember are the days and decade after.

When I was in middle school I had never been to New York City and had never heard of the World Trade Center. New York City in my imagination was all bright lights and Broadway, and back then, I thought that I was going to move there and become the editor-in-chief of Seventeen magazine. (I’ve since been to NYC several times, visited the 9/11 Memorial, and decided that being a fiction writer suits me more than being a magazine editor.)

The magazine covers with the towers side-by-side looking like the number 11 and never-ending news cycle showing a soot covered, dark city are etched in most people’s minds, but I would like to start with the yellow ribbons.

Today, we hear from sociologists, psychologists, economists, scientists, theologians, and everyone else that our country is more divided than ever, and I have often pondered over this past election year what is different today than in trying times before. The answer I have rested upon is faith– but not faith in God– I mean faith in each other.

After 9/11 the prevalence of American flags, yellow ribbons, and business marquees reading “God Bless America” sent a sweeping sense of national pride and unity from the Appalachians to the Rockies.  As a matter of fact, I had never seen a yellow ribbon around a tree until after 9/11, and my parents had to explain to me the significance of them and they let me hear the classic song. Unfortunately, that sense of unity was short-lived and has not since been restored.

Yellow ribbons turned into terrorism threat levels being broadcast and measured by red versus green heat maps, a divisive declaration of war on Iraq, freedom fries over French fries, and corporate corruption at Enron, all in a nation that was suffering from a severe case of PTSD. Then, to add insult to injury, we had to start taking our shoes off at the airport and couldn’t carry toiletries in bottles larger than 3 ounces.

But it didn’t stop there. We created a turban and hijab garbed universal enemy once Islamic terrorist organization the Taliban took responsibility for the attacks. The same fear that made us tense up every time a Muslim, or someone who appeared remotely middle eastern, walked into a room, is the same fear that as been controlling this country for the past 15 years. We fear our neighbors and categorize anyone who doesn’t think like us as an enemy.

As if the heightened fear of terrorism, rising body count of war and elimination of the middle man from the private sector due to Enron were not enough, then everything else had to happen. Over the past 15 years we have seen: half of the Senate be caught cheating on their spouses with various individuals, the implosion of the newspaper industry, a hurricane wreak havoc on the Crescent City, earthquakes, tsunamis, a Congresswoman be shot in the head, the Arab Spring, a laundry list of mass shootings from an elementary school to the Boston Marathon– and that’s not even the half of it.

Then, the housing market crashed, due to unethical lending practices, adding to the skepticism and fear. Now, everyone is afraid to purchase a home, because they saw too many of their parents, friends, and relatives lose homes that they had visited their whole lives up until that point.

The auto industry needed a bailout. Thousands of Midwestern assembly line workers lost their jobs at GM, Ford, and Dodge plants. Now, no one stays at a job long, because they saw too many of their parents, friends, and relatives lose jobs that they had worked their whole lives up until that point.

The 9/11 terrorist attacks were the first big loss and we haven’t stopped losing. Those who grew up during the Depression or during the Civil Rights Movement may say, no way. There’s nothing today that hasn’t happened before. But, today is different because before the 2001 attacks and subsequent declaration of war in 2002, we had faith in each other to fix the problem. Politicians have always been corrupt, but we trusted that our neighbors were good. There has been war in the Middle East since Moses, but we trusted that our neighbors were good. There have been racism and domestic terrorist attacks before, but we trusted that our neighbors were good.

But post-9/11, everyone became an enemy to be feared or defeated. Today, we don’t know whether our neighbors are good or not, because we don’t bother to get to know them. So here we are, in the midst of one of the most volatile election cycles we’ve seen in the past 40 years wondering how to pick up the pieces without having to look each other in the eye. But that is the very thing we need to do today more than ever. We need a yellow ribbon.

I challenge anyone who is reading this post to look a person in the eye and believe that they are good with no questions asked today. Go meet your neighbors. Assume that everyone you see is doing the best they can and that they are on your team, and in my experience I have found that they usually are. The past 15 years have been tumultuous, but that does not mean we have to be defined by the ruins. After all, if Pompeii can be beautiful years after a destructive volcano, then certainly we can be beautiful, even after the fall of the towers.

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