Like most Americans old enough to have a gray hair or two, I can clearly remember where I was and what I was doing on September 1, 2001.
It was a Tuesday, which (for me at that time) meant it was deadline day at the Carroll County News-Leader in Huntingdon.
As a 31-year-old staff reporter with just a couple of years of experience, deadline days typically involved gathering information via phone calls and faxed press releases, sorting through dozens of photographs, and trying to turn all that into readable news stories and features one after the other as fast as I could – along with anything else Shirley Nanney could think up for me to do.
That day included all that, but it was far from a typical Tuesday.
The first hint I had of how different that day would turn out to be was when one of my co-workers announced that her husband had just called and told her that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center.
For some reason, I just assumed it was a small aircraft of some kind, shrugged it off as probably no big deal, and kept on working.
We didn’t have a TV or even a radio in the office and only one computer with dial-up internet access (which was usually tied up with something), so, ironically, we newshounds were probably behind most people when it came to knowing what was going on.
But the news did get to us, piece by piece, phone call by phone call, as the events of that fateful morning unfolded, and concentrating on the work of getting a newspaper put together became harder and harder as the day progressed. Honestly, I’m not sure how we managed it.
By noon, it was already feeling like we were living in another world.
We heard that people were gathering for an impromptu community prayer session at the First Baptist Church downtown, and Shirley told me to walk over there and get some photos.
On the way, I remember noticing how strangely quiet it was. Hardly any cars were out on the streets, and the clear blue sky overhead was undisturbed by any visible air traffic or the usual crisscrossing contrail lines.
At the church, a few dozen people had joined hands in a prayer circle. I shot off several photos, and then I felt compelled to put down my camera and join them – so I did.
It wasn’t until later that evening that I first saw the images that have since been forever seared, not just into my mind, but into our national consciousness as Americans.
I had to cover a town board meeting in Bruceton, and they had a TV set up in the board room at city hall with the news going. Honestly, I really don’t remember anything about the business they conducted at that meeting.
Looking back from 21 years later, those following days and weeks seem kind of hazy and surreal now. I remember feeling like I’d been kicked in the gut. I felt shocked. I felt angry. I felt scared about the future. I wanted someone to blame, and I wanted someone to pay for what had happened. And I think I was united with most of my fellow Americans in feeling that way.
And for that brief season in American history, there was an unmistakable sense of unity in this country – something that, sadly, seems a million miles away from where we are now. For a time, we rediscovered public expressions of patriotism and faith and community spirit and an appreciation for those who put themselves at risk every day to protect and serve others, their country, and their communities.
And a lot of things were born out of that time of unity – the launching of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and a broader War on Terror, the passage of the Patriot Act, and the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, just to name a few.
Now, I’m not going to try to analyze all that or make judgements as to whether those things turned out to be good or bad (or a mixed bag). That would be a long, complicated discussion.
But I think we do need to ask ourselves if we have learned anything from 9/11 as a nation and a people. I would say that’s an honest and an important question to ask.
If we put aside all the political rhetoric and the designs and ambitions of powerful people, I believe there are some worthwhile lessons we can take away from that dark and tragic Tuesday.
One is that evil is real, and there are a lot of people in this world who despise the freedoms and values we hold to as Americans – and that vigilance and strength and resolute purpose are necessary (and will always be necessary) to keep that evil at bay.
Another is that, of all human activities, endeavors, and achievements, nothing is more deserving of honor and praise and remembrance than the laying down of one’s life while trying to save the lives of others.
There was certainly a lot of that going around that day.
And we would all do well to continue to honor and remember all those who lost their lives and gave their lives on Tuesday, September 11, 2001.