When I think about 9/11, the first thing my brain goes to isn’t always the attack on the two towers of the World Trade Center or the Pentagon. I think back to 1993 when I was in college and working at a local TV station in Columbia, South Carolina. My school, the University of South Carolina (that would be the “other” USC), was searching for a new head football coach. One evening, I road to the airport with the sports anchor, because there was a rumor that one of the job candidates was flying into town that evening. We planted ourselves with a video camera at the end of the ramp where the passengers disembarked, hoping to catch the first video clip of who might become the Gamecocks’ new head football coach (sadly, no such person came off the plane).
The reason my brain goes back to 1993 instead of 2001, is because news crews can’t do what we did anymore. The only way you get that close to the end of the ramp is if you’re a passenger. Yes, we went through metal detectors to get that far, but we didn’t have to take off our shoes or submit to a pat down. These days, you don’t get past the metal detectors unless you have a plane ticket.
When I think of 9/11, I also remember growing up in the eighties during the height of the Cold War, fearing we’d all die in nuclear war. Then the Cold War ended, and the threat of nuclear attack no longer felt quite so constant.
But when I think of the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, I only think about the Japanese fighters dropping bombs on our naval fleet, all the lives lost, and how it pushed the United States into World War II. The point I’m making is that when I think of that attack, I can only know what it was after the fact. The idea of life before World War II can and only will ever be an abstract concept for me, but if my parents had asked me when I was a teenager if I “got it,” I don’t doubt I would have insisted that I did.
This morning, my son complained about how all of his teachers always try to hammer on why 9/11 is a big deal. He was born a little more than two weeks before the 9/11 attack. After voicing his complaint, he insisted that what his teachers do isn’t necessary, because he “gets it.” My knee-jerk reaction was to insist that he doesn’t. The thing is, it’s not fair to expect him to. That he knows about it, the mistakes that led to it, and the mistakes that followed are about all your generation can be reasonably expected to know.
You’ll never know a pre-9/11 world. You and my children see the way things are as a given, because you were born into it. I see a world where the victims of the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon aren’t limited to nearly 3,000 deaths and 6,000 injured. The horror of 9/11 is that we’re still being victimized by it. I grew up in a world before 9/11, and I can’t unsee all the things that aren’t the same. I went to Wizard World in Richmond yesterday and a security guard checked me with a metal-detecting wand to make sure I wasn’t carrying any weapons, something that wouldn’t have happened when I was a child. I submitted to that without complaint and even thanked the guard for doing his job, but in the back of my mind, I can’t help think that such necessities in our world are insanity.
I was in the middle of the hiring process to become a 911 dispatcher when 9/11 happened. A few days after the attack, I underwent my polygraph exam. As the polygraph operator read through her list of questions, she eventually asked me, “Do you have any gang or terrorist affiliations?” After I answered “No,” she paused to look up at me and said, “People used to laugh at that question.”