“It is a universal truth that the loss of liberty at home is to be charged to the provisions against danger, real or pretended, from abroad.” – James Madison
Something special is indicated when a date becomes a noun.
Fourth of July.
Cinco de Mayo.
A lot of days have names: Memorial Day, Martin Luther King Day, Veterans Day — but few, indeed, are known solely by their dates.
I was a small town daily newspaper reporter driving to an assignment when my wife called from her work to tell me an airplane had crashed into the World Trade Center.
“Someone’s in a world of s—,” I said.
I’ve got a lot of hours in airplanes, as a U.S. Navy crewman and as holder of a commercial pilot’s license. One thing I knew instantly was no airplane belonged that low over New York City.
“The paperwork will be terrible,” I said, knowing it had been an accident.
I stopped at her work and watched televised replays of that first flight, and wondered what could have gone so terribly wrong that a jetliner could crash into a New York City skyscraper.
After a few minutes, I headed back to my assignment. I parked, paid my tithe to the town’s parking gods, and headed for the county courthouse. I was halfway across Baltimore Street when my cell phone vibrated another call. It was my wife.
“Another plane has crashed into the other tower,” she said.
“That’s no accident,” I replied. “That means war.”
I called my editor and went directly to the county emergency center, where I spent the rest of the day locked in the center because no one knew what might happen next, or where – mostly watching as two jetliners bored repeatedly into the Twin Towers. Bodies fell, over and over, from the upper floors, before, for the umpteenth time, the towers collapsed upon themselves into piles of dust, rubble, and stolen humanity.
To the hijackers, the Twin Towers represented the financial capital of the world. Another plane bored into the Pentagon, the head of the mightiest military organization on the planet. And somewhere over Pennsylvania, Flight 93 rolled over and crashed into a farmer’s field. Some say it had been assigned to hit the White House, others still think its target was the Sears Tower, in Chicago, the nation’s other financial capital.
That was the day our world changed.
Three days later, we all watched as President George W. Bush became Commander-in-Chief. It’s a title that goes with the presidency, but rarely do we give it the recognition it received after 9-11. With all the direct participants dead, he had identified the mastermind and vowed vengeance for the death of 3,000 of our fellow citizens.
A year later I drove to New York City to see the hole, and watched a man stand quietly by himself, wiping his face. He had been in Los Angeles, Calif., preparing for a telephone conference call when the second plane hit the north tower. Ten co-workers died; another would have had he not stopped for breakfast a few blocks from the office. I talked with others, then and since, with similar stories, sometimes about lost co-workers, sometimes about lost family members.
The effect of the attack has been a lasting one. There are many empty chairs at many Thanksgiving Day tables because of what 19 men did that day. And when an earthquake shook the east coast two weeks ago, the first thing many people thought as they were evacuating their buildings in New York City and Washington, D.C. was that a bomb had gone off.
But the effect that bothers me most is how it changed those of us who survived.
The hijackers were Muslim, so we decided we at least distrusted all Muslims.
We have long decried torture as something terrible others did to us, but we accepted it as long we were doing it to anyone wearing a turban.
Congress, which rarely does anything in a hurry, enacted the “Patriot Act” less than two months after the attack. In a nation whose population once placed high value on individual privacy, the law allows law enforcement agencies easy access to medical, financial, and other records – including our borrowing habits at the local library and surveillance of anyone allegedly suspected of terrorist activities.
Even our language has changed. Consider that someone accused of manufacturing methamphetamines can now be charged with possessing a “weapon of mass destruction.” To be sure, a meth lab does pose a serious risk to the surrounding neighborhood, but before 9-11 it would have been charged as illegal drug activity, not terrorism.
U.S. citizens now need a passport to visit Canada, because some would-be terrorist might try to come here from there.
I was asked recently “when will we stop sending our young people to Afghanistan to be killed?”
The answer is simple: When we decide it’s not OK to have our bags searched, and sometimes our valuables stolen, so we can feel a little safer getting on an airplane.
When we stop making our president a hero, if only for a day, because he gave the go-ahead to kill Osama bin Laden.
I think, a lot, of how that day in September taught us to be suspicious of people who pray in public, or want to sit in the back of the airplane, or suddenly decide to fly to Miami – with no luggage.
The news this weekend carried an item that police departments across the nation had been advised to keep a keener eye on possible terrorist threats. It is, after all, the anniversary of the 9-11 attack.
There is no specific threat, or even credible information indicating there might be one, but the National Terrorism Advisory System remains “at a heightened level of vigilance.”
Replacing the color system that seemed permanently stuck on Orange is a new threat-level system that “recognizes that Americans … should always be aware of the heightened risk of terrorist attack in the United States and what they should do.”
That is the legacy of 9-11.
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