Trapper-Keeper in hand, I bounced down the hall toward second period study hall in Mr. Dole’s classroom. As I turned the corner I glanced, as was already customary by that point in the fall of 7th grade, over a dividing wall at the television in the Gifted and Talented classroom adjacent to where I was heading. I remember that I saw the footage, an airplane barreling into the side of the World Trade Center, and thinking: “that looks like a pretty cool movie. I wonder when it comes out.” I walked into class, said hello to the study hall monitor, who also happened to be my mother, and found the way to my seat. For a few minutes everything remained normal: I made fun of the girl who I had a crush on seated in front of me, talked with dread about football practice that afternoon with the classmate beside me.
I recall in the 4th grade Mrs. Harvey talking about the shock she felt when JFK was assassinated. She explained how the whole nation forgot politics and mourned as a group, students bursting into tears after the principal had come into the classroom to explain what had happened. On that fateful Tuesday, Mrs. Knight came over from the adjacent classroom that had the television turned on, eyes rimmed with tears as she explained what had happened. As prepubescent middle schoolers the gravity of the situation swirled well over our heads, the somber mood of the teachers rippling through the students to create a great feeling of unease, but no tears from what I recall.
As 2nd period dismissed the halls were electric with rumor. “The White House is on Fire!” one red headed student claimed, running down the halls to sound the alarm. “My Dad is at the Sears Tower right now, I hope it isn’t next,” confided one girl to another. The rampant speculation resultant from the juxtaposition of national tragedy meeting 7th grade imagination created a firestorm of misinformation. Our classes were largely interrupted throughout the day, television sets tuned to Fox News or CNN, clearly delineating the political leanings held by the head of each class. Time progressed, details became more clear, and our youthful resiliency helped to move us into the future.
However, it wasn’t quite that simple. From educators, church leaders, and parents there was a chorus of, ‘this is a day you will remember for the rest of your lives.’ For our middle school minds it was just an event in a far off place, the gravity of the situation escaping comprehension. With shame I remember waiting for parent pickup outside after-school church choir practice the following afternoon, jokes flying from one misunderstanding middle school mind to another about those trapped in the rubble ordering delivery pizza. Maybe we were innocent, perhaps we were cruel. However, that particular joke still stands out in my mind as having gone too far, even in that circle of immaturity. We couldn’t grasp the enormity of the moment, already desensitized to the violence through years of media sabotage.
The airspace above North America had been closed, leaving the wide-open blue skies of September on the Great Plains unbroken by trails of exhaust. Vividly, I recall laying on the ground in football pads, legs elevated to strain my abdominal muscles as the coach counted, peering up at that unbroken sky through a football face-mask. Then, suddenly, a silver plane trailed across the sky: Air Force One carrying the President eastward over the flyover states. In our small-town way we had seen the President, breathlessly explaining this to parents who just smiled and shook their heads. Things were moving back toward normal, even if it was a slightly altered version of traditional Midwestern life.
In the mind of a 13-year-old boy one thing helped to provide scope and scale of the tragedy: Commissioner Bud Selig postponed baseball for six whole days in the middle of the pennant races. If baseball could be halted, I thought, this must be as big of an event as everyone is making it out to be. The following Monday, however, games resumed with the President seated next to the Yankees dugout after tossing the first pitch over home plate and toward normalcy. The nation, or at least one prepubescent boy in the heartland, rejoiced at the return of America’s Pastime. According to the news reports life had been filled with drastic changes, but in the middle of Iowa life moved on relatively unchanged. The dreaded reality of middle school football practice still haunted the end of each day, there were still girls in class to have crushes on.
As I grew older that day lingered. Not just in the sentimental and emotional ways that had been promised by elders from the outset of the tragedy, but in more concrete ways. The political and economic climate of my adolescence and teenage years were constantly shaded by international conflict: passionate debates in government class about the mounting casualties in Afghanistan and Iraq, eager minds pretending to fully grasp geopolitical intricacies of long-seeded conflicts in a distant land. Some of us became hard-line detractors of war, and, as it dragged on into our formative years, some others even ended up in those faraway places, fighting a war we were young enough to joke about during those cataclysmic moments after the towers fell.
In the aftermath of September 11, 2001, the official reports indicated that 2,977 total casualties had occurred. As the War on Terror unfolded in Afghanistan and Iraq, 6,802 members of the United States military would fall, giving the ultimate sacrifice to a sometimes grateful nation. On the other side, the numbers are more hard to come by, but the generally accepted number of civilian casualties resultant from the United States military operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan since that fateful day sat around 174,000 as of April 2014. We went, we toppled regimes, and even now we train the sites of our bombers on targets determined to be creating terror in those far off lands. Perhaps a mother is looking up at sky, observing an American warplane high in the atmosphere, eyes filled with terror as she holds onto her child. Terror aimed at the terrorists by the terrified.
There are no easy solutions to complex problems, a presumption built on coming of age in the post-9/11 United States of utterly polarized politics. We can debate, threaten, and argue until we are red in the face, but the truth of the matter is that until we, as humanity, quit chasing our own tail out of fear we will never have peace of mind. I will leave you with the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. from a speech delivered in 1958: “Hate begets hate; violence begets violence; toughness begets a greater toughness. We must meet the forces of hate with the power of love.”