Shock from afar
On September 11, I was working in Starkville, Mississippi in a laboratory on a research farm on the edge of town. We were expecting company reps to arrive later in the morning to set up and demonstrate a new piece of equipment we had acquired. I had been on the job almost exactly one month.
I was listening to the radio while I worked, waiting for the reps to arrive, and the announcer came on. "We already know one plane has hit the World Trade Center," he said. I immediately thought "That was the Empire State Building. Back in the 1940s." I figured it was the answer to a trivia question of some sort. But he went on: "Well, we've just learned a second plane has hit."
I went back to work, it taking me a couple minutes to realize something big was happening. The station I was listening to was still playing music, so I turned the dial trying to find a news station. I couldn't find one. The only thing related I heard was the sports station. The program hosts were panicked, and one said "We're going to try to get Major League Baseball on the phone and see what they think." Even though I didn't yet know how big this was, I thought it odd that they would be reaching out to MLB.
A woman from down the hall, Kit, poked her head in my office and asked if I'd heard. She didn't say more, and I only replied that I was looking for a news station on the radio to find out more. I finally found a station that had switched to news, and the reports were wild: a car bomb on the National Mall, fire alarms all over DC, something about the Alaska pipeline.
As far as I knew, there was not a television in the building. At that time, not even all of the computers had internet access, and livestreaming news sites wasn't really yet a thing even on those computers that did. My computer did have internet, and of course, all the traffic to the news sites was crashing them. All I could get to open was the NBC news site, which only had a blank screen with a split picture, one of the second plane approaching and one of the fireball. Nothing else would load. I left the radio on, hearing lots but learning little.
I walked down the hall, and found a group of about five people standing around a table. They were silent, and I wasn't sure if they had heard yet.
The continued silence was odd, and all I said was "I've got pictures on the internet." We all went to my office, the one split picture still all that would load, and all we could think of to talk about what how big the plane was. "It looks like only two engines, so maybe not a big plane." "Oh, I don't know, look at how many windows it has."
Kit came running down the hall and into my office. "They got the Pentagon!"
Nobody said anything. Either nobody believed her or it was just too big.
Probably both. We had no idea what to believe.
The company reps showed up, saying they were eating breakfast at the hotel, watching the TV when the second plane hit. I asked them if the installation and demo was still on, and they said it was. There was nothing that could be done from here, so they might as well do what they came to do.
We did our best to go about business, but I knew all of us wanted to get to a television to see what was going on. My boss arrived a little later. All he said was "You guys heard?" We said we did, and I asked him what the situation was. Were we to be sent home? We were officially a federal entity, although renting space on the university campus, and was the government closing? "No.
If you leave early, you'll have to take vacation time." I asked him if he was serious. He said of course he was. "Nothing's going to happen way out here in Mississippi."
I knew about the USS Cole, and the African Embassy bombings, and knew the name Bin Laden, but international terrorism didn't cross my mind. I was more recalling the Oklahoma City Bombing, groups like the Aryan Nations and Michigan Militia, and remembering how a news report about the Columbine shooting said the two shooters had planned to escape to the airport, hijack an airplane, and crash it into Manhattan. I thought, until later that evening, that this was a home-grown effort. To do what, I wasn't sure, but I wondered if this was the opening shots of domestic terror groups emerging and seizing courthouses, state capitols, and targeting anything federal.
I don't recall when, if I even did during the day, learn that a fourth plane had crashed in Pennsylvania. I remember thinking "At some point those buildings are going to need to be demolished, but I can't imagine how they would do it." I did hear that the towers fell, but I had no concept of what that would look like. Were they on their sides? Did they really fall? Really?
At noon, the company reps were called home. "HQ says to be with our families," one of them said. "Besides, we don't know if this thing is over yet."
Until then, all I had for a frame of reference were things like Oklahoma City, or tornados, or the Reagan assassination attempt. Things that happened in the course of a few seconds, and once done, were done. It had been a couple hours since anything new had happened. I could not process that this might not be over except for the rescue and clean up. That more attacks might still be coming.
I noted long lines at the gas stations on my way home. I didn't connect that people might worry about gas shortages. After watching the news, I met up with a group of people I knew. One of them, who owned a gas station, said "I don't know what people think one tank of gas is going to get them. Whether you're walking tomorrow or walking a week from Thursday it's going to all be the same a month from now."
Certain songs will always remind me of September 11. Wilco's "Jesus, Etc." was recorded before September 11 but released a week later, with the chorus "Tall buildings shake, voices escape singing sad, sad songs." U2 performed "Beautiful Day" at the 2002 Super Bowl with the names of the dead scrolling behind them. Ryan Adams's video for "New York, New York" was filmed with the Twin Towers behind him about a week before the attacks. Every time I see a picture of the New York skyline, I will look for the Towers, and mark the time as "the time before," or "since."
September 11 happened at a time in my life where many things changed suddenly--I graduated college, moved 1000 miles away from where I grew up, I got a new job and a whole new lifestyle--so in some ways it's difficult for me to say how September 11 changed my life or changed my community; I didn't know them in "the time before." I do believe, however, that as people Americans reacted in a very poor way. I had noticed that we had been angry people since the mid-1990s. Probably much earlier, but I started noticing about then how everyone was so angry. Newscasters were angry. Politicians were angry. Coaches were angry. Commentators were angry. Celebrities were angry. Motorists were angry. Teachers were angry. Neighbors were angry.
People on the street were angry. Nobody had anything to talk about unless they were ANGRY. It was cool to be angry. This was already true, but September 11 made it not only cool to be angry, it normalized it. Justified it. Cosigned it on the dotted line in our blood. I guess the terrorists won, in that way, anyway. I have come to view anger as a soul sickness that festers and feeds on itself. We are angry people.
We don't have to be, and I think we don't want to be. But I think we feel forced to be. There are pockets of hope. Pockets of healing. Sometimes in the little things, sometimes in the big. But we have a long way to go. It's more than September 11; we'd still be angry without it. It's us. As we are. Now.
But hopefully not forever.