Every generation has its “Do you remember where you were when you heard?” moment. Pearl Harbor, the assassination of President Kennedy, the Oklahoma City bombing... all marked a turning point in living memory. For anyone who was of an age to follow the news, Sept. 11, 2001 is one of those moments.
When the planes hit the towers, it was still early morning on the west coast, so many of us heard about it on our alarm clock radios as we were getting ready for work or school. The enormity of the attacks left a lot of folks walking around in a daze during the morning. Here at the Columbia Basin Herald, we gathered around the radio and waited for updates that never seemed to come quickly enough. In addition, our then-managing editor was in Washington, D.C. to visit family and was unable to return home. That day’s edition was a difficult one to produce.
The scene at the Herald was mirrored in hundreds of workplaces. As far away as we were, plenty of people in the Basin had friends or family in the affected cities, and it was days before we knew if they were safe. As more details unfolded, our sense of shock only grew. Two planes had hit and destroyed two of the busiest buildings in the world. Another had hit our nation’s military nerve center, and a fourth had been deliberately crashed by heroic passengers. Nearly 3,000 people were dead and untold more injured. Within days the names Al-Qaeda and Osama Bin Laden, previously unknown except to geopolitical nerds, were on everybody’s lips.
And what to do about the attacks? We had a brand-new president, elected by a thin margin in an unusually acrimonious election, and no real idea of how he would respond to a crisis. Our government, and our people, were divided. Some wanted to rush out and nuke any country that harbored terrorists. Others insisted that America was getting what it deserved, or even that our own government had orchestrated the events. The uncertainty of everything made voices of reason difficult to hear.
To be sure, the Sept. 11 attacks were a long way from the most destructive assault ever inflicted on a nation. Let’s face it: 3,000 dead is a much smaller casualty number than, say, the atomic bombing of Hiroshima or the Rape of Nanking. What set 9/11 (as it came to be called) apart was that it happened to Americans, on American soil. We were and are a large, well-defended country; being attacked directly was a new thing for us. With the fall of the Iron Curtain still fresh, America was the world’s only superpower, and boy, did we know it. We thought of ourselves as the ones who protected other countries, not as potential victims. Our laid-back self-assurance, our sense of invulnerability, was one of the first casualties.
Sixteen years later, America is very different. An entire generation is coming of age with no memory of a time when you could board a plane or enter a government building freely, when we didn’t have soldiers fighting ongoing wars in Afghanistan and the Middle East, when government agencies didn’t spy on citizens and people didn’t harass strangers in public for wearing turbans or headscarves. In that sense, the late – and not particularly lamented – Bin Laden gained some small victories.
But not the large one. The attacks galvanized Americans of all walks of life. Divisions of race, politics and (mostly) religion took second place to our unity as a nation. We were Americans and no terrorist was going to divide us. Expressions of support poured in from all over the world. America’s history of rich generosity to other nations was remembered as one country after another pledged its support and solidarity with us. Our armed forces and veterans, which had been treated with barely-concealed disdain since the Vietnam War, began to receive the respect they deserved. Briefly, Americans were one people.
Much of that unity has faded today, alas. Our politics are again bitterly divided and the world is again a dangerous place. But for both good and ill, the America we live in is shaped irrevocably by those 24 hours. Where we are now is a direct result of where we were then.
And we remember that.
— Editorial Board