Nineteen years ago my husband and I were flying to a family reunion. It was Friday, Sept. 14—three days after the 9-11 attacks—and airports were just reopening.
Needless to say, security was tight. Two officers at Charlotte Douglas International Airport checked our trunk and asked several questions when we arrived at 6 a.m. Once inside the terminal, we waited in line for two hours, missed our scheduled flight and were rebooked for mid-day.
We ate sandwiches provided by the Red Cross that had set up a temporary canteen. We attended a prayer service at noon outside the terminal.
Attitude about life had changed on a dime. When all aircraft were grounded on Sept. 11, hotels filled with stranded passengers, so to meet emergency demand, some kindhearted residents opened their homes to strangers. On what had been one of the most horrific weeks in American history, it appeared that we were becoming a kinder, gentler nation.
Our plane to St. Louis was no more than a quarter full. We sat two hours at the gate until a plainclothes man with a briefcase came aboard and took a seat in the last row. We assumed he was a sky marshal, a new air safety requirement.
When we arrived in St. Louis at 4 p.m., the terminal was all but empty. The car rental agent said we were his only customers that day.
No doubt a lot of people thought we were crazy to fly at all, but everyone was on high alert. We were in fact safer that Friday than we would have been a few days earlier.
Of course most of us know exactly where we were on 9-11. We know what we were doing the moment we learned that two planes had hit the World Trade Center.
For me, Sept. 11, 2001 began as a warm, clear day at Weymouth Center in Southern Pines, NC—literally next door to Ft. Bragg. I was on a writing residency with two friends, and the day before, I’d purchased a book about the great San Francisco earthquake of 1906. I remember reading it before I went to sleep on Sept. 10, imagining the conflagration that engulfed one of America’s largest cities and killed some 3,000 people. The San Francisco tragedy was still weighing on my mind that next morning when one of my friends knocked on my door to alert me that two airliners had struck the Twin Towers.
Realizing that the U.S. was under attack, we knew we should leave Southern Pines. Ft. Bragg and all US military installations were on high alert. My friends and I hurriedly packed and hustled on home, listening to real-time radio coverage of the attack on the Pentagon and the downing of United Flight 93 near Shanksville, PA.
America changed overnight as we came together to celebrate the pride and resolve of our nation.
Flags and yellow ribbons popped up everywhere. The display of patriotism in the weeks and months after 9-11 had us rallying around our flag and our new president, George W. Bush who, incredibly, enjoyed an 80 percent approval rating less than a year after the contentious election of 2000.
Volunteers stepped up to help with recovery efforts. Generous citizens collected supplies for first responders and others in need. Churches held prayer vigils. Blood donors lined up. Citizens filled tractor trailers with supplies bound for New York. Young people enlisted in the military.
The nation underwent a metamorphosis like none seen since Pearl Harbor. Certainly no one in my generation had witnessed anything like it.
But the patriot fever has subsided over the years. Thanks to COVID-19, public commemorations of 9-11 were scaled back.
We are in a different political climate. Mention 9-11 these days and you may hear a debate the wrong-headed aspects of the Patriot Act. You might get a tirade against Bush 43 and his infamous weapons of mass destruction. You might hear a rant about prejudice against Muslims, or claims that the 9-11 attacks were a conspiracy between the Bush and bin Laden families.
One thing we can agree on: the War on Terror has been costly. More than 4,400 American lives have been lost so far in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars combined, exceeding the toll from 9-11, which was 2,977.
America is a different place than it was 19 years ago. Our cities are burning not from crashed jetliners, but from arsonists. Marchers in Oakland and New York are chanting “death to America,” much like Jihadists did in Iraq and Iran. Politicians are defunding police departments where police officers helped evacuate people from burning buildings on 9-11.
Many scorn flying the US flag and singing “The Star Spangled Banner.”
Back in 2001, the 40 passengers and crew on United Flight 93 were celebrated as the first warriors in the fight against terrorism. It was a job assumed later by thousands of service men and women who have fought bravely on our behalf.
I wonder what all of them would think of us now.
Photo credit: By National Park Service – https://web.archive.org/web/20021019052836/http://www.nps.gov/remembrance/statue/index.htmlhttps://seminolelakerotary.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/statue_of_liberty.jpg, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=173149