I’ve been reading and hearing from countless people today about the 9/11 attacks and how those attacks changed the world forever. These people are mistaken.
I’m not dismissing the suicide attacks that left thousands of individuals dead in New York City, Washington DC, and a field in Pennsylvania. The four hijacked commercial airliners turned into aerial bombs created a wound which has left a lasting scar which will always remind us of the horrific events which transpired on that Tuesday.
I was a graduate student instructor in Mississippi at the time of the attacks. I taught a MWF schedule and spent Tuesday and Thursday reading and writing. On that morning I sat in my apartment which was a section of shotgun styled detached addition to a house built in the 1890s. It had little insulation or anything else other than electricity and running water for that matter, but it was a place that I could afford without taking on additional debt or needing a roommate. There I sat watching the events unfold wondering if what I saw happening was in fact truly occurring and not merely some nightmare from which I could awake.
I recall vividly the return to the classroom and the looks on the faces of my students. For most in the classroom I was just a few years their senior, with two students I was their junior, yet as the teacher all looked at me for answers. I realized that I would not be lecturing on some topic to the students seated in a classroom set like a movie theater with me below everyone down on stage. Instead I pulled the table next to the lectern closer to the bottom row, sat down upon it and said let’s talk.
Back row, aisle seat to my left as I faced the class, the young lady active in the Air Force ROTC on campus said surreal. Others spoke to the same feelings. One student asked me if what he felt was similar to what his grandparents felt listening to FDR talk about the attack on Pearl Harbor. Another asked about her parents after the Kennedy assassination and seeing Jack Ruby shoot Oswald on television.
At the conclusion of class, I started walking out to my truck. One member of the class walked alongside. He was a star 2 sport athlete at the university playing both basketball and football. In high school, he had been an all-state quarterback and actually dominated a future NFL starter on the stat sheet as he led his team to victory in the interstate all-star football game. Recruited by SEC schools as a QB, DB, punter, and athlete for football, he decided to focus on basketball where he also had offers from SEC schools. He was a senior and taking the survey level US History course because he had not taken it in his prior 3 years on campus.
He stood about a foot taller than me with about 100 pounds of additional muscle on his frame compared to mine. Physical differences, race, undergraduate to graduate student were obvious contrasts, but he was at heart a humble country boy brought up with the same manners like I had been in Livingston Parish and had a strong work ethic toward everything even with his physical gifts. He was also a Dad, and everyone he met could tell that his daughter was his life.
We reached his Blazer which he had parked about 2 rows closer than I had with my S-10. He had talked with his little girl about what they had seen on TV. She was not afraid because if the bad people came, her Daddy was big and strong and could protect everyone. He and I sat on his bumper and talked about how any of the cars in the parking lot might contain a bomb and if so take us out instantly. Who we were would not change that fact. He didn’t know how to respond to his daughter’s statement, and of course I had no words to reassure him.
While he still looks the same 14 years later and like he could still play professionally if the human body had replaceable ankles and I’m just as ugly today as I was back then and appearance wise only sport more gray hairs, his little girl isn’t so little anymore. In fact, she’s an adult, athlete, and a young woman who even with physical gifts personifies that idea of a student-athlete just like her Dad.
Our world did not change on 11 September 2001 just as it did not change on 7 December 1941. On both dates individuals attacked the United States on our soil, the second our continental soil, and stole innocent lives. Blood drenched the soil.
We were and are no longer isolated. In fact we have never been, but our perceptions of reality changed. We could in fact be attacked by a foreign force in our home. We thought that danger existed mostly over there, but we saw it, heard it, smelled it, and tasted it over here. It was no longer a possibility or even a probability but actuality.
If it can happen to one then we must understand and accept that it can happen to another and we could be in that group.
John Donne in Meditation XVII wrote:
“No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.”
The world did not change. Our perception of the world, however, transformed because we had no choice but to walk in those proverbial footsteps of another.
If only we would be willing to challenge perceptions by walking in another’s footsteps without first saturating the surroundings with blood and hate over differences, then perhaps the world will change.