On Sept. 11, 2001, I was a freshman in college, early on the path that would lead me to fail six of the nine classes I’d signed up to take that semester, largely because I failed to show up due to the wicked education I was getting beyond Troy University’s hallowed halls of education, and I awoke in my dorm room to a blast of noise exploding against the cinder block walls around me – someone was knocking on my door.
I opened the door and one of the guys from across the hall was standing in my doorway, both of us still in our underwear, though he at least had a cup of coffee by this point.
“Holy shit, man,” he wailed. “Did you see what happened?”
“No, man,” I replied. “I woke up to you bangin’ on my goddamn door.”
“Turn on the TV, man,” he responded, brushing past me into the tiny, unkempt cell that passed for living quarters in those days. “Some fuckin’ lunatic just crashed into one of the Twin Towers.”
We sat in silence, sipping instant coffee and smoking cigarettes beside the open window, taking in a scene wholly different from our own, one of chaos and pounding noises, of blood and tragedy and loss, of desperation and dust and falling debris of a tiny piercing nature and an enormous crushing nature, all splattering out in sickening technicolor across the streets of New York and spilling into our dorm room via the numbing, glowing box we sat before.
Obviously, the events of the day continued to unfold and what my friend had thought was some lunatic that made an awful mistake in the wee hours of the morning turned out to be something much different – barely did our feet get wet in a pond beyond our homes before we were compelled to return by some primitive force, some innately human response to crippling and unexplainable tragedy.
The response was immediate – parking lots began to empty on the campus as desperate and terrified college students beat the roads back to their hometowns, looking for answers and some sense of respite from the discord beyond the doors of their insulated dorm rooms – and so I hit the road for Montgomery to find my family, not because I consciously felt threatened or out of sorts but, quite possibly, because I was subconsciously suffering from both, as well as stifling emotions beyond and above.
Everybody has a story like this – I saw someone online refer to it as our generation’s Kennedy assassination and while at first, the notion sickened me it seems that, in a real way, the sentiment isn’t far off, even if the language leaves a little to be desired.
The events of so many years ago still pierce our collective consciousness specifically because they can’t truly be explained – we were shaken awake from our self-induced stupor, suddenly made to realize that this nation is in fact vulnerable and not the all-powerful behemoth that our leaders like to say it is on the campaign trail; we were burned on a human level by the devastating loss of life, captured sickeningly well in the photos and videos of bodies tumbling through the sky as they sought to escape from the crumbling, burning buildings they were occupying, the bleeding and dusty-gray faces of the people seeking escape from the tumult on the streets below; we were overcome with grief and fury and perhaps that human-wide inner-discrepancy overloaded our collective mind.
Where that fury took us is well known by now, as are the results, but we never truly allowed to grief to become policy in the same way that we allowed fury, which is to say that there was no moral equivalent to the Patriot Act, there was no gut response to see more and feel more and give more and do more.
While that is as utopian an idea as one can likely muster – thinking that overstuffed lawmakers might consider tackling problems with their hearts and minds rather than boots and guns, or that the public they represent would sit idly by while the government advocated stuffing flowers into the end of rifle barrels – it’s exactly what we needed then and exactly what we need now.
On this day, where we honor and remember those who fell victim to an atrocious attack that occurred on this nation’s soil some 18 years ago, let us strive to create a world where hateful ideologies find no fertile ground and hate becomes little more than a word used by an earlier, uncivilized people – it’s anyone’s guess how we can do it, but there’s no doubt that each of us has a part to play in that mission every day in a multitude of tiny ways.
Adam Powell is a journalist with nearly two decades of experience, currently working as a Staff Writer and Columnist for The Selma Times-Journal and serving as President of the Alabama chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ).