Remembering 9/11, twenty years later, Nancy Townsley reflects on where she was on that day and ponders other tragedies in American history, past and present.
Tuesday, September 11, 2001, dawned as a crisp and clear late-summer morning in northwest Oregon. I’d switched my radio to the local NPR affiliate as I waited for the assistant superintendent in the confines of my Volkswagen Golf, its ancient heater intermittently blowing lukewarm air my way. I was on assignment for my newspaper at the Beaverton School District bus barn when I learned that two commercial airliners had crashed into the World Trade Center towers, 2,900 miles away in New York City.
My interest in finding out how officials planned to justify retrofitting the district’s entire bus fleet with expensive, low-emission equipment faded completely away. Along with the rest of the nation, I sat dumbfounded as reporters stuttered their way through the terrible events of that day: How the first tower and then the second had crumbled and collapsed, how a third airplane had plowed into the west side of the Pentagon in Virginia, and how passengers had stormed the cockpit of a fourth plane, giving up their own lives in a field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania, to keep hijackers from reaching their intended target, either the White House or the U.S. Capitol Building.
Nearly three thousand people, including the nineteen hijackers, were dead in the aftermath of the worst terrorist attack in history.
But I didn’t know that yet. All I knew was that my interview subject was late, I needed to file my story by 3:00 that afternoon, and that I was feeling a strange emotional connection to a different disaster, 15 years before that, when the Space Shuttle Challenger blew up in front of our eyes, on television in another newsroom, early in my career as a community newspaper reporter.
I was expecting my first child when the shuttle exploded. The juxtaposition of beginnings and endings was not lost on me back then, and it wasn’t in 2001, either. On 9/11, along with the rest of the world, I felt sick to my stomach, then sick at heart, sad for all the shocked, suddenly-mourning families, and bothered by the reality of how vulnerable all of us were to the whims of bad actors.
On 9/11, along with the rest of the world, I felt sick to my stomach, then sick at heart, sad for all the shocked, suddenly-mourning families, and bothered by the reality of how vulnerable all of us were to the whims of bad actors.
We added new words to our vocabularies—“infiltrate” and “cells” and “militant” and “fatwā” —as the horror of what had happened sank in.
It took quite a while for our country’s leaders to finger the perpetrators of 9/11, who, despite all the rumors and solemn statements about retaliation and vengeance, turned out not to be Saddam Hussein, not the supposed planters of nonexistent weapons of mass destruction, not indoctrinated, indentured Iraqi nationals. The mastermind behind the attacks was a shadowy, bearded figure named Osama bin Laden, a top al-Qaeda general who met his end nearly a decade later in Abbottabad, Pakistan, when U.S. Navy Seals stormed the compound where he was hiding and shot and killed him.
The Challenger disaster, conversely, was a homegrown calamity that investigators eventually blamed on a faulty O-ring, a quarter-inch-diameter piece of rubber whose failure was responsible for the deaths of seven crew members.
One was a deliberate act, the other an accident. Each shaped my perspective on the capacity of people to do harm to other people, intentionally or unintentionally, and sometimes both.
Today, on the 20th anniversary of 9/11, we’re beset by COVID-19, a public health crisis of gargantuan proportions, a fast-mutating virus that has killed 4.6 million worldwide and more than 646,000 in the U.S. And I can’t help but hark back to the 1970s, to a comic strip written and illustrated by the late cartoonist Walt Kelly, whose message of disillusionment at the human propensity for self-inflicted pain seems to speak louder and more eloquently than ever.
“We have met the enemy, and he is us,” the pollution-loathing opossum, Pogo, lamented in more than one prescient Kelly creation, a look of abject exhaustion on his furry face as he stood on the litter-strewn banks of Okefenokee Swamp.
Despite the availability of lifesaving vaccines, around 25% of Americans are still refusing the jab, opening themselves and others to the ravages of the pandemic. Hospital COVID wings are full to overflowing, mostly with unvaccinated people. In northern Idaho, health care facilities are starting to ration care because there aren’t enough beds for all the patients flooding in. I imagine Pogo looking up from the piles of garbage ruining his beloved habitat and asking, in a sad, squeaky opossum voice, “Why do we subject ourselves, and each other, to these terrible things?”
The truth is, we have choices. Our meditations become our mantra. Ideology and energy command our actions. What we pay attention to is what we become.
It turns out, for instance, that the much-ballyhooed War on Terror—currently far down the page on Americans’ shortlist of tall issues, behind the economy, racial justice protests, voter suppression, abortion laws, climate change, and coronavirus—was much more about us than it was about them. We have enormous capacity, and nearly carte blanche autonomy, to harm ourselves as a society, and we do so on a daily. Yet for all our efforts to blame “the other” for perceived domestic threats to our republic—whether (on the one side) it’s Black Lives Matter backers, LGBTQIA+ allies, scientists, women, and President Biden or (on the other side) gun-toting Capitol rioters, Ron DeSantis, Texas legislators, and anti-maskers—whenever we point a finger at someone else, there are still four fingers pointing back at us.
We were united as a country after 9/11. We cried and waved flags and vowed to stand together. Now, “patriotism” has been bastardized as a badge that only a narrow slice of America can claim for itself. For all the speeches made and memorials built, isn’t it the worst possible elegy to those who perished on September 11 that, 20 years on, partisan politics have so thoroughly divided us? It won’t take Russia or China or Saudi Arabia to finish America off. Our republic will only recover if we heed Pogo’s words, get humble, and change our ways.