The landmark events for my brothers’ and sisters’ generation are JFK’s assassination and the lunar landing. For my generation, we can point to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Challenger disaster.
The second Tuesday in September 2001 is a benchmark for all generations of Americans, and maybe for generations to come.
The morning of 9/11 is the kind where you will never forget where you were and what you were doing. Me, I was at my folks’ house, on a day off, having come down from Marietta for laundry and banking. I was asleep in a back bedroom, with the TV on. I awoke to the voice of Peter Jennings at just before 9 a.m.
I knew this couldn’t be good. I saw the footage of a burning, smoking World Trade Center tower. Then the second tower was hit by an airliner at full tilt. I rushed out to the living room, grabbing the remote control and getting my dad’s attention.
We watched in silence, every so often softly muttering an obscenity. Then the Pentagon got hit.
The phone in the kitchen rang. I picked it up and a voice on the other end barely got out “Pat,” before I said, “I’m on my way in.” I knew it was my boss, asking how fast I could get into the office in Marietta from Hinesville.
As I left, my dad and I walked out of the house. He had spent 25 years in the Army but wasn’t very jingoistic. Some of his brothers had seen more than their share of combat and a brother-in-law had been killed in action in Korea.
But this was different.
“It’s time to kick ass,” he said.
When I got into the office, a somber, anxious-gripped newsroom, my boss tasked me with going to local watering holes to assess the mood and reaction from people on the day. Another one of our guys called two coaches, both Vietnam veterans, to get their impressions on what some of their players and thousands of other young men might be in for in the weeks, months and years ahead.
My last stop on the evening was our after-work hangout. On a Tuesday night, I knew just about every customer in there. I also knew the manager. And it was one of the most difficult interviews I ever had.
Mike, the manager, was from Connecticut and a good friend. His daughter Leslie was an EMT in New York City. I asked him if he had heard from Leslie. My voice was shaking as I asked the question. Mike, a terrific fellow with a gravely-voice tinged with years of cigarettes and Grand Marnier, could barely bring himself to answer. He hadn’t, but his other daughter had, at about 5 that afternoon.
Physically, Leslie was fine. She wasn’t near the towers and did not go down there that day. But many of her friends, firefighters, EMTs and police officers, did go to the World Trade Center— and didn’t make it out.
Eventually, she went out West to go to medical school but spent a lot of time in therapy over the loss of so many friends so quickly.
Several years later, I was covering a speech at the General Assembly by one of the few men to address a joint session of the state House and Senate who was not a sitting governor. I considered that man a friend, and as I went to the steps of the Gold Dome, I saw a group of protestors, on hand to voice their opposition because the speaker was the commander of the 3rd Infantry Division and was just back from 15 months as commander of coalition forces in Baghdad.
I felt like asking the dozen or so folks with placards and signs and making all sorts of commotion if they knew anything about Maj. Gen. Webster, other than that he was the commander of an American infantry division.
Did they know he had a death in the family on the eve of the 2003 invasion of Iraq but could not go home? Did they know that the plane that hit the Pentagon on 9/11 struck the Department of Defense’s headquarters about 100 yards from his office that day, and he spent the next few hours pulling people out of the smoke and the flames and the rubble?
The easy thing to say is we’re different, as a nation, as a society, as an economy, since that day. I don’t know if we’re any safer 10 years later. We’ve sacrificed some personal liberty for security. Has been it worth it? The leader of Al Qaeda is at the bottom of the Arabian Sea and the architect of the attacks resides in a prison at Guantanamo, far from Afghanistan, Pakistan and New York City. But have we addressed the root causes that led to Al Qaeda and lead to its continued existence, even if it is in a weakened state? Should we fear Al Qaeda striking again at masses of helpless, innocent civilians?
We’ve been at war since the first plane was hijacked that day. Maybe we’ve been at war long before that — the bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut, the first attempt at blowing up the World Trade Center, the attacks on the USS Cole and the embassies in East Africa, maybe even as far back as the 1972 Munich Olympics — and we’ll be at war against the shadowy forces of terrorism for a long time to come.
Maybe the next generation won’t have to dread the date 9/11. Maybe their benchmark moment can be a far happier memory.