(From the September 8, 2011 Grand Haven Tribune)
It started out as such a beautiful day. The air was still warm but not so hot and heavy with summer humidity. The air was crisp without being frigid. It seemed you could see for miles across a sky more blue than seemed normal or possible.
Soon, everyone was looking into that blue sky, but for reasons wrong and terrible. It was not to appreciate the beauty but to wonder at the horror that ripped it. Two planes flown into the World Trade Center towers. Nineteen previously unknown men with a wicked plot. Three thousand unsuspecting men and women thinking they were at the beginning of a day at work and suddenly realizing they were at the end of their lives.
All of these numbers are remembered now collectively as “9-11,” the latest date of infamy our country has experienced. It is a tragic date comparable to the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, or the murder of Martin Luther King Jr, on April 4, 1968, or the space shuttle Challenger disaster on January 28, 1986.
People usually say they can remember where they were and what they were doing on such momentous and terrible dates. I recall that ten years ago on the morning of September 11 I was trying to fax something to New York City for a freelance client. Because I was on deadline, I had not watched TV news or read news online that morning. Instead I got right to work in my home office. I remember being surprised that the fax was not going through to New York. I knew New York was a busy city, but after multiple attempts at faxing I grew frustrated and turned on my computer to do some other work before trying the fax again.
A freelance artist I work with had emailed me to say he was a little behind on getting some work finished for me on account of “being preoccupied by the World Trade Center news.” This guy had a nutty sense of humor, so I grinned to myself thinking he was making a bizarre excuse referring to the 1993 Trade Center bombing. I kept trolling through emails. Then I saw a headline in an e-newsletter mention the World Trade Center and I thought this was too much of a coincidence. I clicked on the link and read the story with my mouth open. Then I ran to the TV to see the live coverage of the horrible event. I tuned in just before the second plane crashed into the towers.
Instantly, my perspective on what was important that day changed. The fax I had been trying to fax was a news release about a client. I don’t even remember that client right now. But I do remember talking to friends in the media in the days and weeks that followed and asking how long they thought it would be before the news was not dominated by the Trade Center story. Six months seemed to be the consensus reply. Word of my client’s news would have to wait or be communicated in other ways than the news media.
The fall of 2001 also was my first year as a full-time faculty member at Grand Valley State University. I was asked to participate in a “teach-in” on campus, which consisted of me and two of my faculty colleagues speaking to students at an outdoor stage on campus about the tragic news. Jonathan White, who is both a pastor and criminal justice professor with expertise on terrorism, spoke about why terrorists would do such a thing. He subsequently was a consultant with the federal government on this issue. Grand Haven resident James Goode, a history professor with expertise on the Middle East, spoke about Middle Eastern history and the possible motivations a few extremists from that part of the world would have for attacking the U.S. I spoke about the media coverage of the event and how students should inform themselves carefully and intelligently about matters related to 9-11.
Many of us thought we were far removed from this ugly event. But I saw “ground zero” in New York in person at least twice since then and was struck by the enormity of the tragedy. A student of mine had a sister who worked in the Pentagon and was injured the day of the attacks. Another student lost her fiancé in the war in Iraq that followed. We all have dealt with the increased airport security and become more familiar with Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Al Queda.
Several years ago I toured the Pearl Harbor memorial in Hawaii. The remains of sailors who died on the USS Arizona remain entombed inside the ship where it sank in the harbor, and oil still leaks out of the ship around the flag bedecked shrine built over it. That event will never be forgotten. Even now, the memorial and new towers continue to be built in New York. Far away from there, as I write this and look at the flag on Dewey Hill, the tallest point of our much smaller city, I think we will always remember 9-11 as well. Our feelings may change from rage to grief to somber reflection, but we will always remember. I don’t know how we can not.