Thoughts and Memories on September 11

September 11, 2021

Many of us remember where we were, what we were doing, and how we felt on 9/11. It can seem long ago, or like yesterday — both at the same time. It changed the course of our history, and the contours of many individual lives.

I was a young reporter in my mid-20’s, working the early morning 5 a.m. shift for the Associated Press at the Salt Lake City bureau when the first plane hit the World Trade Center’s North Tower. Completely alone in the newsroom watching CNN live, my workday was just getting started.

As I witnessed it in real time, I was thrown off-balance, thinking a private plane had flown off course and hit the first tower. But as I watched and then the second plane hit, I felt jolted with an immediate flood of anger and fear about America being under attack on our own soil.

I instinctively dialed my mom in Encinitas, waking her. I told her to wake up my sister and turn on the television because we were being attacked. The first thing my mom said when I told her what was happening was, “Oh my god, we’ll never be the same.” Then I hung up and called my editor. 

As a reporter in a state capitol far from NYC, Washington D.C., or Pennsylvania, I spent the day on edge, monitoring the federal buildings in Salt Lake City and dreading the additional assaults that might be looming.

On my way home after an emotionally fraught and draining day, I stopped at a hardware store and bought a large American flag that I draped across my one-bedroom ground-floor apartment window, facing the street.

After a few months, I scraped together the money to fly to this scarred and sacred spot to pay my respects to the 2,996 American souls who perished there, and recognize the symbolism of what the collapse of those towers meant to Americans.

In NYC, I witnessed the painstaking, ongoing removal of the twisted, mangled metal and concrete. I reflected on the bravery that led hundreds of first responders to run into the buildings so that thousands could escape.

I will never stop believing that we must continue to care for and fight for those directly affected by 9/11, and their families – firefighters, police, EMT’s, paramedics, medical personnel, and others.

The impact of 9/11 continued to reverberate and affect us. Soon after the tragedy, politicians and reporters started receiving anthrax in the mail, and there was a very real fear that it might be connected to the terrorist attacks. Salt Lake City was hosting the Winter Olympics four months after 9/11, and every part of the planning was defined by the possibility of “what if?” As reporters, our stories revolved around this question.

Many of us weeped as we read the news articles about the heroic passengers on the plane they forced to crash in Shankstown, Pennsylvania to save the lives of innocent unknown Americans. For me, the phrase “Let’s roll” will always conjure the spirit of selfless sacrifice by the people on that plane – the last audible words before the passengers wrested control from the hijackers. 

Today is the day that we recognize and honor the lives lost and forever altered on that day and the heroism of the first responders. But we are also reckoning with the gut-wrenching reality that the invasion of Afghanistan, prompted by the 9/11 attack, has come full circle. When we invaded, the Taliban was in control. After so many billions of dollars and thousands of lives lost and families forever changed — exactly 20 years later — we have left, and the Taliban is back in charge.

Are we safer now because of the American efforts of the last two decades? I honestly don’t know. But this I know for sure: America’s sacrifices in the years that followed were honorable and patriotic. We rid the world of Osama Bin Laden and no foreign terrorist attacks of that scale have occurred on American soil since.

I also have deep concern for the innocent people who were hurt by our War on Terror. The collateral damage at home has resulted in tens of thousands of brave soldiers living with permanent injuries both physical and psychological, and domestic policing which in too many cases have negatively affected Arab-American and middle eastern immigrant minority communities.

In addition, I worry about the massive expansion of surveillance in this country that began after 9/11, and the untold number of innocent people negatively affected around the world by our actions. 

This morning I joined the Oceanside Fire and Police Departments and dozens of local neighbors and friends for a 9/11 Remembrance Ceremony. There was a flag salute, the singing of the National Anthem, remarks by officials, and the playing of “Taps,” our nation’s musical cry of remembrance, as seen in the photo above.

Today’s ceremony gave those of us in attendance time to acknowledge and reflect. I hope you are able to take a moment today to contemplate the meaning of this 20-year anniversary for you and yours, and the importance of 9/11 in your life as a Californian, an American, and a citizen of the world.

Associated Press reporter Ted Anthony has written a thought (and memory)-provoking piece with several touching photos entitled “As the decades pass, the act of remembering evolves,” reported from the Flight 93 National Memorial in Shanksville, PA.

I’ll leave you with an excerpt from his story:

When memory does become history, it can become more remote, like a Revolutionary War memorial for people whose passions and sacrifices have been sanded down by time. With distance, it can calcify.

That’s not going to happen with 9/11 for a long time, of course. Its politics are still roiling. The arguments that it produced — and the ways they sent society hurtling in a different direction — are just as intense as in those early days.

And when a nation pauses to remember the morning 20 years ago when it was attacked, it is not only looking over its shoulder. It is also looking around and wondering: What does this mean to us now?

In remembrance,

New York City last night.

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