by Nancy McDaniel
September 11, 2001 started out for me, as it did for most, as just an ordinary September day. Just an ordinary Tuesday. Oddly enough, it was the 15th anniversary of my father’s death. It was the morning after the opening night of a wonderful new play I attended. It was the day before I was to fly to Los Angeles for a walk on role on the hit TV show CSI. The day started off expectantly hopeful. It changed dramatically.
“Do You Remember where you were when….JFK Was Shot? RFK Was Shot? Oklahoma City Happened…?”
Yes. I was walking to English Class junior year at Punahou High School, Honolulu.
Yes. I was on a “study date” (an oxymoron if I ever heard one) at an apartment the week before finals, junior year, Northwestern University.
Yes. I was lying on my mom’s couch recovering from foot surgery, about to indulge myself by watching Court TV coverage of the OJ Simpson Trial.
And, yes of course, to the as yet unasked but will-always-be-there question. I was sitting at my computer, on the Internet, when I saw the headlines that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center in New York. Like most, I thought “what a terrible accident” and immediately turned the TV on to the Today Show and began my marathon TV watching.
I’ll Never Forget What Matt Lauer Said
At first I had no idea what was happening. But it quickly became clear that this was no ordinary plane crash (what a strange choice of words, will accidental plane crashes now be viewed with relief as “ordinary” and “at least it wasn’t ‘on purpose'”). I gazed at the television set in horror, with the smoke and flames coming out of the first tower. For a moment it looked as though the second plane was just flying too close, just going behind the building. And then it hit. I can’t remember if it was before or after the second plane hit, although I think it was after, but I’ll never forget what Matt Lauer said. He was talking while the screen showed live footage. All of a sudden he said something like, “Wait, roll that tape again. I think the Tower just collapsed”. Indeed, it had. It was then that I think I knew that this something truly terrible was happening. To all of us.
There’s something quite surreal about watching tragedy unfold before one’s very eyes, in real time. It’s like a movie you can’t turn away from. If there’s violence or destruction in a movie, I sometimes cover my eyes or reassure myself that it’s not real, it’s only staged or computer generated. Watching television on September 11, I couldn’t do that, although I desperately wanted to.
It Couldn’t be The Im-Penatrable-tagon… could it?
But I kept watching, unable to turn away. And all of a sudden, there was some reporter standing in front of the Pentagon talking about national security. And then he said he just heard a crash and felt the ground shake. And then we saw smoke, just like that. And then a big hole in the side of the Pentagon. What could possibly be next? This was starting to feel like the end of the world. Even Orson Welles wouldn’t’ have known what to say or do next.
I don’t remember how I heard about the plane going down in Pennsylvania. I do remember at some point seeing George Bush as he was speaking to school children, looking unusually bewildered as someone whispered something in his ear. I remember thinking ironically, at some point, that I’ll bet Al Gore was thinking, “Sheesh, thank goodness for Katherine Harris and Jeb Bush. Otherwise this would be MY crisis to deal with.”
How Could They Hate Us? The World Used to Love US
As the events unfolded and word started being released about “intentional” and I heard words and names like bin Laden and Al Queda, which I’d never heard before, I asked the same question to myself that so many people did. How and why could someone, anyone, hate the United States of America this much?
I still think of many overseas trips – to Greece, to Tanzania, to other African countries, when people were so eager and actually excited to meet an American and to talk about the United States and all the magic and majesty of our country. I have always been proud and grateful to have been born in this country. Sometimes I have had to disabuse people of the notion that all is perfect in this country of mine, to explain that, yes, there are poor people and unemployment and crime. (Read Mama’s Voice). Although astonished at my naiveté, I was incredulous that there were people who hated us THAT MUCH. To this day, I still don’t understand the depth of the hatred, the dedication to any cause, that would allow, no in fact cause, someone to carry out a horrific and deadly plan such as this.
What Ever Happened to Freedom of Speech?
As time went by after September 11, it was so odd to me that no one seemed willing or able to criticize George Bush (or anyone else in the administration). There was this honeymoon period, that because we were united in crisis, there was no room for dissenting points of view or differences of opinion. I think I remember that my favorite author, Barbara Kingsolver, wrote some sort of an essay expressing some disagreement with something and was roundly criticized for “breaking rank.” There was this whole odd, to my mind somewhat phony, patriotism that made people who seldom agreed on anything all of a sudden agree about everything. That made people dress exclusively in red white and blue and put multiple flags on their car while at the same time hating people who didn’t look like or agree with them. For awhile, some of the united front-ness was sort of nice. However, I quickly became pretty tired of the Partridge Family stuff and longed for some good old hostility, partisan politics, and people flipping the bird at you when you were driving badly. I guess I just wanted some semblance of normalcy back.
The speech that President Bush gave to the Joint Session of Congress was masterful. (I’ve never used those three words in a sentence before or since: “Bush,” “masterful,” and “speech.” But he was.) I forgot for a moment that I generally disagreed with just about everything he does, says, or stands for. For that moment, I was a patriotic American and I was actually proud of him as my country’s president. For that moment. (This too shall pass. Ooops, it just did.)
I wasn’t afraid to travel. I doubt that I ever will be. I went to Los Angeles and then to Africa in November. People seemed shocked that I was still going and wondered “aren’t you afraid to fly?” I defiantly asserted that I was not afraid, that next time (and I firmly and unfortunately believed and continue to believe that there will be a next time) they would do something completely different, to keep us off balance. I believed then and still do that I was not going to stay sequestered and holed up in my house and change my life because then “THEY” would have won, whoever “THEY” were.
And How About Our Civil Rights?
I know we have to be more careful. I know our security has to be tighter and our surveillance more thorough. I know we have to even be more suspicious. But I am appalled by racial profiling and people arming themselves and firebombing of mosques and attacks against Sikhs and radical Christians saying that Islam is all bad. I am sick and tired of people using religion to justify hatred and violence (them? Us?) . If there is in fact a God, I cannot imagine that (s)he condones this violence and cruelty. I also have always felt this way about the Catholics and Protestants fighting in Ireland, about the Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda, about the Israeli – Palestinian conflict.
I fear that I do not know my country anymore. I fear that we are stepping backward in time to increased intolerance. Intolerance of racial, religious and ethnic minorities, against women, against gays and lesbians. This move to conservatism and war-mongering can help no one. I feel that the events of September 11, 2001 gave some people, especially those in politics, the excuse they had been seeking to clamp down and trample over our civil liberties.
Back to Questioning, Criticism, Perhaps a Semblance of Normalcy
I was actually glad when columnists and commentators started questioning again. Criticism is healthy. It is, in fact, what happens in a true democracy. For better or worse, whining and moaning and questioning and complaining is “American. Finally, there can once again be editorial cartoons about the way to prevent forest fires is to denude our forests.
I still don’t know how I feel about Iraq. I do know that the PR spin on why we attacked Afghanistan was brilliant. Think back to October. If anyone remembers, originally we went to Afghanistan to “git” Osama bin Laden. But then in a public relations tour-de-force, the avowed purpose of sending troops was evolved to “we must liberate the Afghan people, especially women, from the horrific Taliban regime.” Which is good. But people may have forgotten that it was never the reason we started the war in Afghanistan to begin with. It was, however, a brilliant way to get the American people soundly on the side of war. How can one be against declaring war on people who prevent girls from going to school and destroy religious antiquities?
Let’s Expand the List of Evil Doers
But if the Prez so hates Evil Doers, then I have another head of state to nominate. Not just oil-producing potentates. What about Robert Gabriel Mugabe of Zimbabwe, whose people are starving because he won’t allow white farmers to grow crops? Who won’t allow food to be distributed to villages where people voted against him? Whose thugs rape young children because their parents voted for the opposition party? How about Mugabe, Mr. Bush? He’s my nomination for a supreme Evil Doer. Could we throw him out next, even without though he probably doesn’t have access to “weapons of mass destruction”? I don’t know but it seems to me that he’s causing “mass destruction” to his country; doesn’t that count??
There I go, being Normal Nancy again. I’m criticizing. I will continue to be a loyal American and I will strongly and verbally defend my country against people who criticize us or want to hurt or even destroy us. But I must be free to dissent. I must be free to criticize from within. To me, it’s kind of like a mother who consistently praises and ferociously defends her children to the outside world but reprimands them at home when they do wrong. She loves them no less; it’s just that she just can see and admit their flaws.
Are we, as a nation, changed because of September 11, 2001? Of course; how could we not be? We have learned that we must be more cautious and a little more vigilant. Yet, I fear that in so many ways, we are less tolerant. I fear that we are more suspicious of people who may not look, be or believe as we do. Wrapping ourselves in the American flag and a shell of patriotism isn’t what it should be about. We need to work together to guard our personal freedoms and insure that the United States of America sets the best example for other democracies.
But if we have learned to be a little more kind and loving and not take our lives, our blessings, our friends and our families so much for granted, then perhaps we have learned something positive from that horrible day.