I haven’t even begun to truly compose this blog yet, and already I find myself choking down a lump in my throat. For the first time in a decade, I’m allowing myself to go back to that morning ten years ago. Not just to remember where I was or what I was doing, but what I felt that morning as those horrific events unfolded.
“9/11” as it has come to be known, was the defining event of this generation. It was the day many of us who had yet to see the face of real war lost our innocence. It was the day that we, as a nation, were forced to finally realize we were not invincible and, by extension, to face our own mortality.
So, where was I? I was driving to work. I worked at Descartes Systems Group at the time, and lived in Center. On my way to work, I took a few moments to change out the CD I was listening to (iPod? what was that?) and I heard a news report saying the World Trade Center was on fire. I remember thinking, “Wow, I hope no one is hurt.”
I got to my job, got my coffee, sat down, and overheard some of my coworkers listening to the radio. One of them, Eric, told me that the fire had been caused by a plane that hit the tower. We speculated over what kind of plane it could be. I had assumed it was a Cessna or some other small, private plane that had lost control.
Then it happened. Another plane hit. My stomach tightened. I felt nauseous. “This has to be intentional,” someone said. My mind immediately went to two people: Saddam Hussein, or Osama bin Laden.
Osama bin Laden was a name with which I was familiar. During my college years, a document purported to come from him listed Shippingport, our local nuclear power plant, as a possible terrorist target for al Qaeda.
When the plane went down in Shanksville and the Pentagon was suddenly aflame, everyone at the office knew we were under attack. And all of us wondered the same thing: when’s the next hammer going to fall? Who would be next?
I immediately grew concerned for the power plant. I called my wife – pregnant with our first child and home from work – to see what was happening. She popped in a tape and recorded the newscast for me, and provided me with updates. At work, someone hooked up a television set and we watched some of what unfolded live. Our upper level managers in Toronto e-mailed us, asked us how we were holding up. Ultimately, they sent us home for the day to be with our family.
I don’t think anyone would truly be able to comprehend the scale of these events until much later. In the immediate aftermath, there was fear, confusion, shock. This eventually morphed into a righteous indignation, that in turn became holy wrath brought crashing down upon the bastards who would dare strike our homeland and kill our brothers and sisters. The days and weeks following the attack saw an American flag on every porch, and a newfound love of country in every heart. Yes, we were vulnerable. But by God, we were AMERICANS, every one of us. And as the saying goes, you mess with one of us, you mess with ALL of us.
I remember watching news reports of our neighbors and friends in other nations. Someone in Europe said, “We are all American, today.” People in the UK were singing the Star Spangled Banner. There was such an outpouring of brotherhood among our allies, that it seemed the entire world would rise up to crush al Qaeda.
That didn’t quite happen. Questionable decisions were made, partisan politics came into play, and our nation has been a mess of selfish ideologies ever since. It’s an unfortunate ending to a story that began with peace, tolerance, and brotherhood.
But when I think back to 9/11, I will always remember what it felt like to be an AMERICAN. To realize that what we have in this country is so rare and beautiful, that other, lesser men would rise up and kill us for being WHO WE ARE. The fear I felt in the aftermath is long gone. 9/11 propelled me into adulthood.
Truly, September 11, 2001 was the day America changed. It was the day the world changed. And it was the day al Qaeda changed. We ended the reign of those who allowed al Qaeda to flourish. We hunted them down wherever they hid. And eventually – a long time coming – even Osama bin Laden himself felt the collective wrath of these United States.
The first decade is over. It will never come again. 9/11 will begin to take its place, alongside such tragedies as Pearl Harbor, as a day that defined the direction of this country for years to come. We now have generations of children who were born into a world where the Twin Towers don’t exist. It’s all they know, and with that, the memories will begin to fade.
But those of us who were there that day…those of us who stood next to our family members, our co-workers, our neighbors, our friends…those of us who looked more kindly at strangers and who for once turned off the violent television program to celebrate life…those of us who witnessed those towers crumbling to the ground…and who witnessed the bravest men and women this world has ever seen charge into hell itself to save their countrymen…and onto foreign soil to avenge those countrymen…those of us who saw those three brave firefighters hoisting the stars and stripes amidst the wreckage of our once-proud World Trade Center…we will NEVER FORGET the day every man, woman, and child in this country, and even in other parts of the world, stood as one and said WE ARE AMERICANS AND WE WILL NOT BE COWED.
To everyone who has ever charged into danger at the risk of their own lives…to every police officer and firefighter in the city of New York and beyond…to every soldier who has seen the sands of Afghanistan and Iraq…to those who did not make it home…to those who bear the scars and wounds of their visit…to my cousin Rob Soltes, who gave his life in Iraq… you have my utmost respect, and eternal gratitude…and the eternal gratitude of this nation. Thank you for your service, your sacrifice. Thank you for being the best of what America is.
God bless America – warts and all. For if we can produce men and women of such dignity and bravery, we must be doing something right.