For a moment we were all Americans
It was my second week as a Ph.D. student. I had gotten over the initial jitters of being a new teaching assistant, meeting my professors, and engaging an entirely new level of work. Overcoming some significant struggles and hurdles, I was settling into a new restaurant job and apartment in Albany, New York with my wife and two-year-old daughter. It would be fair to say that as I was finishing getting dressed on the morning of Tuesday, September 11, 1991, I was as absorbed in my own little world as a person could be.
We were renting the second floor of a two-family house about halfway between downtown Albany and the SUNY campus where I was going to school. The apartment was simple; we used the front room (living room) as the master bedroom to allow me to use the smallest bedroom as an office. Our cable had just been turned on a few days before and I had quickly developed a habit of sitting at my desk with a cup of coffee watching the news before I headed out for the day. I was heading there with one arm already in my sports jacket when I heard my wife yell from the office for me to come to see what was happening.
My very first thought when I saw smoke pouring from the North Tower was, “how the hell did a plane fly into the Twin Towers?” Looking back on two decades of the War on Terror I think most have forgotten how safe it felt to be an American before that day. Now, whenever there is a major explosion or accident thoughts instinctively go to terrorism first. But on that morning, I think most Americans had no comprehension that something like that could happen here. The first attack on the Towers in 1993 and the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995 were tremors that shook us up. But 9/11 was an earthquake that changed the landscape forever.
I think like many Americans, the second plane hitting the South Tower was the exact moment I understood something had changed. I do not know how much time passed, but at some point, I realized that I had never put my other arm into my jacket. It was during that morning that I came to fully understand the meaning of the word ‘surreal’. I was having a hard time processing everything that was happening and remember distinctly saying to my wife that I felt like we were watching a movie. But having grown up 90 minutes north of New York City in Poughkeepsie, New York everything flashing on the TV screen was familiar. People running up the West Side Highway or scrambling across the Brooklyn Bridge were using routes I had taken out of Manhattan dozens of times. And despite the familiarity, I was having difficulty watching so much panic and terror knowing that my only frame of reference for that part was movies. It seemed like someone had mixed up the programming and we were all caught in another hoax by H.G. Wells.
Then the plane hit the Pentagon. That was the moment where I got scared, although I think it was for a variety of reasons. It is hard to explain to anyone that didn’t experience it, but planes were hitting buildings so quickly that I think the entire country raced from curiosity to anxiety, straight through fear to complete panic in about 30 minutes. Then there was news of a fourth plane crashing in Pennsylvania and I will admit that I had no idea what to make of it. There were suggestions that it was on its way to DC to hit yet another target. But of course, none of us yet knew about the passengers of Flight 93 who had made an incredible sacrifice to save so many others. My emotions were swirling and looking back it was my first real experience with another concept: existential fear.
And then the first tower fell. I think it was about this point that I started to disconnect a little bit. I was truly horrified, and it felt as if the Towers were collapsing into the pit of my stomach. I had a building dread driven by complete ignorance of what was happening, and what was going to happen. I remember listening to the reporters do they only thing they could do, describe what we were all seeing. And when the second Tower fell it was as if the entire country collectively gasped, and then began to cry. At first, it was the tears on your face when you haven’t even realized that you started crying. But as the morning and then the rest of the day wore on and the country realized the attacks were done, I think the crying turned into a deep national sobbing.
The weeks after 9/11 might be the only time in my life I was ever truly and deeply depressed for something that had nothing to do directly with my own life. I felt so defeated and exhausted that all I could do was reflect, and constantly search for others to confirm my reflections. Like many others at the time, I was one of those that became a CNN junkie. I turned into Joaquin Phoenix in the movie Signs, only I did not have to hide in the closet because the entire country was huddling in the basement. The news that so many people had been evacuated before the Towers had fallen did little to soften the heartbreak and loss associated with so many fallen first responders. It was heartbreaking watching the hundreds of rescuers stand rock still as the cacophony of emergency beepers signaled lost heroes of 9/11 buried under the rubble. I do not personally know what it was like after Pearl Harbor, but for everyone that experienced it, 9/11 was also a day that will live in infamy.
And then for a moment, something miraculous happened. You must remember that in the weeks immediately following 9/11 everything came to a standstill. There were no classes or meetings. My restaurant closed for a week and so like most Americans I watched and waited to see what would happen next. But also like most Americans, I talked to my neighbors and called my family. I visited friends that I had been too busy to catch up with, and even made new ones in the impromptu gatherings that sprung up as people tried to console each other. And for about two weeks after 9/11, most Americans thought being American was more important than anything else.
It would not be long before our political divisions would return. And the rise of Islamophobia casts a shadow over this time. But for the briefest of moments, we were all united in loving our country, and each other. It does not take a close reading of American history to know that we are often at our best when attacked. And as politics in America today demonstrates, in the absence of a foe we too often set upon each other. But as I look back on that morning 19 years ago and how it changed my life, I cannot help but think of how it also changed America… at least for two weeks. And for everything that has happened since, I still wish there was a way for us to come together without the threats, the violence, and the fear. I wish we could have done more to capture that moment where we loved each other and wanted to protect each other for no other reason but we are all Americans.
Dr. Darius Watson is a professor of Political Science at Lincoln University in Missouri. He is also the primary contributor to the news and analysis website drillbitnews.com, as well as the senior consultant for Watson Consulting & Analysis, LLC. Dr. Watson is an active scholar, analyst, and instructor with a record of commitment to publication, professional presentations, and most importantly his students.