September 11, 2001.
We were on our way to school, my ten year old and I. A normal, sunny morning in the northern suburbs of Chicago hundreds of miles from New York City, from Washington D.C., from Shanksville, Pennsylvania.
As usual, I was listening to WGN, Chicago’s news and talk AM station while chatting with Adam, who sat in the back seat playing with his Game Boy. We were midway through a mile-long stretch of forest preserve when the radio station’s traffic announcer broke in. It was around 7:50 a.m. A small plane, she said had flown into the World Trade Center, perhaps a corporate jet that had somehow lost its way. Switching to a New York radio feed, WGN wanted to provide listeners with on-the-scene coverage. Phoning my husband, by now in his downtown office, I told him about the accident. While mildly debating whether it might have been a terrorist act, the second plane hit, and all doubt was removed. It had not been small corporate planes, but large, full commercial airliners; it had been no accident.
There have always been moments of this sort of shared national horror; news trickling out as Americans wait for information—any information to mitigate the pain, or to confirm it. I was nine years old when John F. Kennedy was assassinated November 22, 1963. It had been a rainy, chilly typically late November day in Chicago. We were at indoor lunch recess, with Bozo’s circus playing on the classroom television set. I was coloring—something—when the news presenter broke in, tears in his eyes and horror in his voice. President Kennedy had been shot. Less than two hours later—we were at library, listening to the librarian distractedly read The Phantom Tollbooth, when the school principal announced via intercom that the President of the United States was dead. We were to go home, be with our parents. We did not return to school until after the funeral.
Even now, vivid images remain, burned into our collective memory, our weeping souls. Jackie’s blood-stained pink suit, a somber Vice President Lyndon Johnson taking the oath of office in Air Force One; a funeral cortege and JFK’s flag-draped casket drawn slowly past a weeping nation; John Jr. bravely saluting. Images.
Just as then, it is the images that stay with us, that give us pause even 10 years later, as they will for decades to come. The shared disbelief, followed by dawning recognition—shock and horror: we could not tear our eyes away from the images as they played on television, as if the news would somehow get better. It didn’t.
My, mother, eyes glued to CNN all day, phoned me every five minutes with some new report, some new threat—some of them real, some born of the chaos surrounding us. I met with great skepticism her stunned mid-morning call to tell me that the first tower had collapsed. And by the time I’d relayed the news to a colleague, the second tower was doing the same. At that point, all pretense of work vanished as every television in the entire building was turned on, as they were in every corner of the stunned nation.
The planes, flying silently, as if carried on the wind in a cloudless sky, drawing ever nearer the first tower: that’s the image—the still unnerving image—that stays with me even today, 10 years later. My eyes still, almost involuntarily scan the sky when I hear a plane that sounds too loud—too low. Is that plane off course? Is it banking weirdly? That’s not a typical flight path to O’Hare Airport is it? Will that plane flying overhead suddenly drop like a bomb out of the sky? Planes.
The smoke and fire: people trying to outrun the enormous cloud of debris after the towers fell. The impact of the planes: the bright orange as they hit; the gaping holes left in the white of the skyscraping towers. The twisted steel: more horrific than any disaster movie might have wrought. The Pentagon: a gaping hole in the most prominent symbol of our American military might. Images. Horrific images.
But then there was the heroism on that day and the days to follow: the bravery, the sense that we were for the first time in many years, a people united. First responders carried the dead and dying on their backs: firemen, policemen, just ordinary citizens who only wanted to help—acts of remarkable bravery as they entered into the maelstrom and chaos of the smoldering rubble. They became our national heroes: a symbol of the best in us, who we aspire to be.
Fifteen years have now passed, and those images of who we were in the face of unspeakable horror are all the more compelling, when we, as a people, are so fractured, so petty, so mean. They are images of hope in the midst of despair, unity–not finger-pointing, not blaming each other. Politics set aside for the greater good of a nation in grief and confusion.
And perhaps those are the images to embrace and hold onto as the years pass and the other images fade into the archive of our collective memory.