It was a crisp early autumn morning in Connecticut, the warmth of the summer sun was still evident but the breeze brought the promise of Fall. It was such an enjoyable morning that my friend Jeff and I decided to skip school in favor of spending our day outdoors. It was my senior year, after all, and I had already come down with what is commonly referred to as senioritis. My car, a 1998 Subaru Impreza, was at the shop that morning having some type of routine maintenance done. My mother dropped Jeff, whom I normally drove to school, and myself off at the garage to pick my car up with the understanding that we would go directly to school from there. By this time, first period would’ve been already underway. Jeff mentioned he didn’t want to go to school, a motion I quickly seconded. And with that we were off to spend the day however we’d like.
My windows down and my stereo blasting we went cruising. We hit a Dunkin Donuts and grabbed some breakfast and then spent some time just driving around smoking cigarettes (a habit I would wisely quit 4 years later). After a short time we found ourselves riding around Highland Lake in Winsted. I remember being very content and gazing at the water and thinking how peaceful and serene of a day it was. In the next moments everything would change, and not just my day, but the entire world as I knew it.
The cell phone my mother had bought me and forced me to carry as a sort of invisible leash rang and vibrated from my pocket. It was her. I remember telling Jeff that we were busted; somehow my mother had found out and she was undoubtedly calling to tell me to get my butt to school.
“Hello,” I answered sheepishly.
“Where are you!?” Something was wrong—she wasn’t mad, she was concerned. She sounded as if she had been crying.
“I’m driving around the lake, I’m headed to school now, I had a study hall and—“
“Get to school now!” she cut me off. “We’re under attack!”
“What?” I asked, laughing nervously.
“The country is under attack.” Her voice trembled.
Chills ran down my spine, my eyes welled up in panic. “What do you mean?!” I asked, anxiety shaking my voice.
“Two planes have been flown into the Twin Towers—a bomb or something has exploded at the Pentagon—they’re saying more planes could be hijacked.”
I pulled the car over in shock. I could barely breathe. “Oh my God… Who is doing it?”
“They don’t know. No one knows anything, or how much more is going to come. Please get to school.”
With that I headed for school. Jeff was asking questions, I repeated what I knew. A look of complete disbelief came over him. My generation had seen the bombing of the Oklahoma City Building and the first attack on the Towers when we were children. Those events, while alarming, were single incidents. This was different. The nation was under siege, the fear and anxiety were palpable.
As we walked into the building I saw the look on the faces of my teachers and our principle. The grief and concern that they wore amplified the magnitude of the event in my young mind. I instantly knew that this was a historic event, one which would forever change the world as I knew it. As I came around the corner to my classroom I saw the television with the images for the first time and I felt my legs weaken. The symbols of New York I knew so well were aflame and people were standing in the gaping holes of the building desperately waiving for help. In the next moments the first Tower fell. My teacher’s jaw dropped, there were gasps and cries as the entire sky scraper vanished into dust, extinguishing so many lives in an instant.
What’s odd to me is that while all those events are so clear in my head, every memory burned into my mind so deeply I doubt I will ever forget them, the rest of the day is a fog. My girlfriend at the time, Jeff, and myself spent the afternoon listening to the news from my car radio, talking about what had happened, and expressing our feelings about it. We were shocked, we were disturbed, and we were deeply saddened. Never before had an event shaken us so much. We had just watched mass murder on live television, and it had taken place less than two hours from our homes.
Whatever innocence I had left of my child was murdered along with the more than 3,000 people who perished that day. I think I carried a lot of that pain and anxiety with me for many years to come, even if it was buried. I suspect that many Americans continue to struggle with the shock, the heartache, the loss, and the fear. It may be something we look back upon decades from now and see more clearly, that none of us who were old enough to understand what had happened could ever be the same.
In my mind, I had grown up in a nation where this couldn’t happen. America was the greatest, freest, and safest country in the world. I didn’t give much regards to strife elsewhere in the world, because I was an American and I was safe. And even when we suffered loss, like at Oklahoma City in 1996 and New York in 1993, we didn’t retreat from our way of life—we pushed on, we held dear to our liberties and our values, or so I was told.
In the years that followed I began to feel like I was living in another country. Terror Alerts, new government agencies, security personnel grouping children and the elderly before they boarded planes. I watch a nation that had resolved to only fight necessary wars enter two ill-thought occupations in Afghanistan and Iraq. They said Afghanistan had harbored the terrorists and Iraq posed a threat to US security—but neither country was involved in the attacks. Most of the hijackers had come from Saudi Arabia. I watched as words like “dirty bomb,” “rendition,” and “waterboarding” became common household terms.
Our government maintained the terrorist had targeted us because of our freedoms. Yet I watched that same government strip away so many of those freedoms in the name of security. Ben Franklin famously warned us that any who’d trade liberty for security deserves neither. We now live in a very different country; a place where our government illegally spies on us without restraint, and where the president may target US citizens for assassination with drones. I could only think that if those who would harm really want us to be less free, that we are handing them a victory larger than they could ever hope to achieve on their own.
It’s been through our grief, our rage, and our fear that we have acted in ways that have pushed us from the ideals and values we are supposed to hold dear—the very liberties and principles which make up the bedrock of this Republic. If our way of life is truly worth fighting for, and I believe it is, we cannot alter is so greatly as to deform it in ways which cannot be undone. We must fight against this aggression by leading the lives we have been given to their fullest and embracing freedom, not shirking from it in fear.
What is the best way to honor the lives that were stolen that day? Is it to blanket our once free society in endless surveillance? If we bow to fear, if we relinquish our liberties, if we depend on more government to protect us, will we be any safer? The sad answer is no. The 9/11 Commission Report, after all, cited complex bureaucracies as a major cause of the attacks. Intelligence failures occur, in part, because there is too much intelligence being gathered. If we monitor every phone call and correspondence, the volume of information collected becomes a proverbial haystack in which finding the dangerous needles is nearly impossible. Relinquishing our liberties doesn’t keep us safer, but it does give those who hate us and wish us harm exactly what they want.
The best way to honor those who died is to live our lives, to celebrate our freedom, and to cherish that which makes us exemplary. To do anything else is a poor memorial to those we’ve lost. We must let the fog of war clear from our minds, let go of our rage, and embrace our sadness. The final stage of mourning is acceptance. For me it took nearly 12 years before I could accept what had happened and allow it to no longer be a motivator of actions or a source of anger, but simply a tragedy to commemorate.
A person who is thrown from a horse cannot be truly healed until they climb back on that horse. We as a society will never be healed until we climb back up on that beautiful steed, Liberty, grab her reins and ride her into history as we were intended to. Any other course would be choosing to permanently live with our wounds. That is the worse way to honor the departed; to live hiding from the sun, to allow grief to claim your life along with those taken by death. In any mourning there is a point we must say: it is okay to move on, it is okay to live, and it is okay to be happy again. In our case, it is okay to be free again.