September 11 (10 Years Later)
How Was I Changed by 9/11?
Looking back, I am embarassed by how much the September 11 attacks caught me off guard. I was aware of terrorist attacks against the United States in the past, and I knew that there were plenty of people in the world who did not think highly of my country, but I was not prepared for something on that scale. When I was driving to an 8 AM class that morning, and I heard strange statements on the radio about our nation being under attack, I initially thought that it was some sort of a strange joke. But when I started flipping channels, it was clear that something big was happening. By the time that I reached class, one of the towers had collapsed. A short time later, students informed me that the other had fallen as well.
I ended up carrying out a class that morning in spite of all the craziness. I can’t remember what topic in American History that we were covering. But at the beginning of class, as I compared information and rumors with my students, I threw out a couple of theories about who may have done this. If I remember correctly, the first people that I mentioned were those who strongly opposed globalization. There had been a massive anti-globalization protest in Seattle just a year before, and this issue seemed poised to become the Vietnam War of my generation. The World Trade Center, the ultimate symbol of American financial dominance, would be a likely target if some anti-globablization group decided to turn violent. Now, those days when globalization attracted enormous attention seem like a lifetime ago. Then, if I remember correctly, I suggested that this might be the work of Islamic extremists. I did not mention, however, Osama Bin Laden or Al Qaeda. Truth be told, I knew next to nothing about either.
Given the fact that I lived on the opposite side of the country from these terrorist attacks, I had no direct, personal connection to what happened in New York City, Washington D.C., and Pennsylvania. I don’t know anyone who died in those locations that horrible day. These attacks, however, did change my life in one significant way. For just as I am embarassed by how much these events caught me off guard, I am also embarassed by how uninformed I was before September 11, 2001. I worked hard to get my history straight so that I could teach my classes. But when it came to current events, both nationally and internationally, I was relatively clueless. And when I drove around in my car, music was generally blaring in the background. But after 9/11, in my quest to gain more information about what the hell just happened and why, news stations replaced rock and roll. To this day, if I am driving in my car by myself, either the local NPR station or a news-related podcast is playing. I do not quite qualify as a news junkie, and as with history, there will always more that I don’t know than the limited amount that I do, but I am not the relative ignoramus that I was a decade ago. Hopefully, there are others out there who can tell a similar story. Unfortunately, however, if my students are a general reflection of American society, apathy is still the order of the day.
September 11 also forced me to tack on another major topic to my course outline. Ever since, the words “War on Terror (2001 - ?)” have appeared in the final unit that focuses on the last twenty years of history. When discussing this topic, I always make sure to pose one simple question: At some point in the future, will I be able to put a date in place of that question mark? It is, unfortunately, difficult for me to imagine a day when we can declare victory against terrorism. In the end, all that we can do is minimize the likelihood of attacks. There will always be angry, violent, crazy people out there intent on doing others harm. But at least now, this threat gets the attention that it always deserved. I just hope, however, that in the attempt to thwart the people who we label terrorists we do not engage in behaviors and policies that do more harm than good. I also hope that in our fixation on thwarting terror, we do not lose focus on the many other things that must be done to maintain a peaceful and prosperous society. One of the primary goals of terrorism, after all, is to cause an overreaction from its victims, who are terrorized into paying enormous costs to stop it from happening again.
There has not been an attack on that scale for the last ten years, so maybe those people in the military and intelligence community are doing some things right. But then again, we had never seen anything on that scale in the previous decades of American history either. There is no simple answer to this problem, and since we do not know the future, all that we can do is hope to win the battle on a day by day basis. As we learned ten years ago, there is no such thing as absolute security for even the most powerful nation in history. And as I learned personally, one of the first steps toward becoming a better person and playing some role in creating a better world is waking up and admitting your own