With this year’s anniversary of 9/11, I didn’t necessarily want to just rehash where I was on that date (although I’ll never forget working at WONU-FM as a morning show producer watching it all happen and then helping to report it on a radio station). I’ve been down that road repeatedly. It is helpful to revisit the past and to understand we all share a similar story from that day. We can all remember where we were…what we were doing…how we felt.
But what I wanted to spend a few minutes today on was who I was then compared to who I am now. In a way it’s a very difficult assignment. The lives we lead are continuous, leading us constantly along an edge — a cliff — of who we are now compared to who we used to be. But I think I can accurately answer some things about the “me from the past.”
I always loved history and geography (I teach both of those subjects at the high school level now), but what 9/11 did for me was open my eyes to the lives of those in these strange and distant lands. Sure, there was the initial hate and desire for revenge, but we also were able to see the women and children who had been kept in a state of fear and repression in the old Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. We were suddenly made aware of the oppressive governments in the Middle East — some that operated from a basis of Islam, and some that merely used Islam as an excuse, a smokescreen.
At the time, I was a newly-minted college graduate. I had mastered four years of post-secondary education and came out on top. I knew what I needed to know to make it in this world, and then 9/11 came and shook me to the core. Who were these people that had spent years planning and plotting to kill and hurt us? You could easily dismiss them as simple radicals who operated outside of their religion (and for the most part be correct), but by slapping a label on them you would be ignoring the reality of their lives. You would be ignoring what led to their feeling of hopelessness so much that they felt they needed to lash out at America.
Out of the discovery of what was actually in the Middle East, what happened? Many things — invasions and wars. Some may have been justified, some not. That isn’t a discussion for today, but ultimately what those 19 terrorists started 14 years ago has led eventually to Saddam Hussein being taken out of power in Iraq. It’s led to the Arab Spring were numerous despots saw their power they held get taken away from them. It’s led even today to the Refugee Crisis that has dominated the news lately. Our actions do not happen in a vacuum. They have long and sometimes unintended consequences. Did the terrorists hope to destroy and cripple the U.S. 14 years ago? I believe they did. In the end, if they could see the chaos they unleashed in the Middle East, would they repeat their actions? I’m not so sure.
But again, as I look at myself and the person I am today, I know that the events of that day changed me. I became more empathetic. I saw people on TV as people. When I saw the grainy forms falling from the Twin Towers, I cried for those who felt no other option than to plunge hundreds of feet to their deaths. When I saw the anguish from family members searching in vain for those who would never return home, I couldn’t stop my emotions from getting the best of me.
And why would I want to?
It hurt when I saw those things. I wanted to cry with every additional second I watched television that day and the next few days. I felt an emptiness in my stomach for the lives that were shattered and broken on that day. But for all the pain I felt, I am grateful. I am a changed man, discovering a world outside of my own shell. Before that day, I mostly was concerned with myself. In this post-9/11 world, I think I have more sensitivity to the pain around me. And that pain, while it hurts in the moment, leads to more compassion, more love, more of what it really means to be a human. Not just an American, but human. Our nationalities are an accident of birth. I am lucky beyond belief to be a native of this country, but what if I had been born in North Korea, or Afghanistan, or Liberia? How are they deemed less worthy of a life than me just because of the country of origin?
I suppose in some ways, this also helped open my eyes to adoption as well. I was still three years away from being a father for the first time, but after that, my wife and I decided adoption was what we wanted to do for our second child. In a pre-9/11 world where I was oblivious to the plight of the areas of Not-America, would I have done this? I don’t know, but somehow I doubt it. And my life is richer for it. Some of the moments in the adoption process were difficult, but at the same time, I am not sure I would have made it though them were it not for the emotions I felt as I sat in front of a TV 14 years ago.
Today I spoke to one of my classes about 9/11. I thought I would make it through just fine, especially since the seniors in high school were just 4 years old when it happened. We didn’t share the event. But as I spoke and the room quieted down, I realized the trauma is still with me. As it is with most every American who went through that day. I don’t like it, but I don’t want to give that up, either. As John Green has said, “That’s the thing about pain, it demands to be felt.” I got choked up talking about what I experienced on that Tuesday, but it helped make me into who I am.
How am I different? I’ve changed in so many ways it is just ingrained in me. Of course, I would never wish 9/11 to happen, but with it, I believe it helped transform me into the man I am. My thoughts and prayers go out to everyone on this day. #neverforget