People of a certain age all have a conscious memory of where they were when President Kennedy was shot. They remember hearing an announcement on the intercom at school or seeing their mother cry when the venerable reporter Walter Cronkite confirmed that the President had died. It is a collective American memory.
Those of us in a later generation have that kind of collective memory surrounding the 9-11 attacks seventeen years ago this week. I was at Putnam City North High School teaching AP US History. I don’t remember how I initially found out that something unspeakable had happened, but I do remember having a television in my classroom to watch some early reporting. I remember thinking of one of my closest friends from college who lived in New York City. I tried to get her on the phone a few times, but of course the signals were all jammed. I called her parents here in Oklahoma and luckily her dad had heard from her and reported she was alright. She was supposed to report to a temp job in one of the towers that day, but didn’t.
I am sure some teachers cancelled their regular lesson plans, opting to spend the day glued to the TV with their kids. I didn’t think that would be best for me or my students, even though we were in a history class. There would be plenty of footage repeated endlessly for days to come, and their parents could decide whether to let them absorb those images again and again. I determined we would go on with class as planned after brief discussion time at the top of each period.
I can’t believe that was seventeen years ago. Those students are now in their mid-thirties, some are married and have children. They were barely able to know the blissful ignorance we lived in before that tragedy. They have likely never flown without removing their shoes in a TSA boarding line. They haven’t lived in a time without a 24 hour news cycle. There’s nearly always been a Department of Homeland Security in their nation.
It is cliché to say we lost our innocence as a nation that day. What we really lost was our isolation. Our enemies were always there, we just weren’t aware of them. We really were blissfully ignorant. We’ve believed for so long that we could do exactly what we wanted as a nation and there would be few negative consequences. That ended on 9-11. The enemies have gotten more insidious, smarter even, more cruel.
It’s a hard truth to bear because I love this nation so much. I hate knowing that the actions of outsiders have made us more fearful, less welcoming. But that is exactly what happened in the wake of 9/11. We’ll never be that nation again.
With honor and respect to the American heroes of 9-11.