September 11, 2001. Until the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020, no event since World War II has so profoundly affected the lifestyles of Americans as that Tuesday morning.
On that day, I was in a hotel in Richardson, Texas – a suburb of Dallas. I was there for the second day of a seminar on government officials’ relationships with the news media1.
A little before 8:00 AM, Central time, my fellow attendees and I gathered in the hotel lobby for their complimentary coffee and snacks. We were soon to board a bus to take us to the seminar site at the University of Texas.
Suddenly, the lobby TV switched to the scene in New York. Someone said, “Some idiot flew his Cessna into the World Trade Center.” An airplane pilot myself for more than 20 years, I knew that was no Cessna. It was something much larger.
Some in the media realized that too. Commentators began drawing parallels to July 28, 1945. On that day, the pilot of a B-25 bomber became lost in the fog and crashed into the 78th floor of the Empire State Building in New York. Fourteen people were killed in that crash.
Still, the images of smoke billowing from the north tower of the World Trade Center suggested something far more devastating. It was probably a large commercial aircraft. But with the sophisticated radar tracking of airplanes in 2001, how could a commercial pilot crash into a large metropolitan building.
As we sat transfixed to the tv, that answer became clear: it was no accident. Eighteen minutes after the north tower crash, we watched as a second airliner crashed at high speed into the south tower. It was 8:03 AM in Richardson.
Off to Class
Moments later, we were pulled away to board our bus. We were all in shock at the implications.
When we arrived at the classroom, televisions sets originally positioned to show example clips of government officials’ interviews with the media were tuned to live photos of New York. We were transfixed at the images.
But for most of our class, the world came alive at moments after we arrived in the classroom. Before most of us had even taken our seats, news came in that a third plane had hit the Pentagon. It was 8:37 AM in Dallas and it became crystalline – America was under attack. At that moment, pagers began beeping across the room. Most of the class were from the Dallas metroplex. They were being summoned back to work. Who could know how extensive the attacks would be?
It was obvious that the class was cancelled. It was soon to be replaced by real life media interactions with many of my class members.
Since I was not from the area, no one was calling me to go back to work. I began planning my next move. Originally, I had planned to take a flight out of Dallas that afternoon to go to Detroit. There I planned to meet my wife for a short vacation to Mackinac Island.
But even before we left the university, the FAA ordered all domestic flights to land at the nearest airport2.
I didn’t relish a drive from Dallas to Boise and it first seemed that I might be able to fly home in a day or two. I spent the next several days in my room, watching the aftermath unfold on TV, only venturing out to eat. Ultimately, I left Dallas on Friday.
The events of September 11 would change the way Americans – and indeed the world – traveled by air. Security checks prior to boarding aircraft had been in place since the 1970s due to hijackings. But those screenings were markedly increased in the weeks and months after the attacks. Airline passenger screening was previously handled on a local basis by the airlines. But soon, the federal government would intervene in the form of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA).
We Will Never Forget September 11
With 2,977 dead from the attacks, “We will never forget” became the rallying cry of most Americans. Support for President Bush and his response to the attacks soared to a 90% approval rating.
We also became more suspicious. When it became clear that the Islamic terrorist organization Al-Qaida was behind the attacks, hate crimes – particularly against Muslim Americans rapidly increased. Not even President Bush’s public appearance at Washington, D.C.’s largest Islamic Center a few days after the attacks helped. He acknowledged the “incredibly valuable contribution” that millions of American Muslims made to their country and called for them “to be treated with respect.” But still many people, shocked by the enormity of the loss, lashed out at anyone they believed “might be related” to the attacks.
In time, such assaults diminished, although they never really stopped. Americans have long held a love/hate relationship with those different from themselves. We welcome immigrants to our shores – “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free3.” Yet racial bias is still prevalent, as evidenced by the massive protests happening across the country in 2020.
And indeed, “We will never forget” has faded for many. As with “A date which will live in infamy” – President Roosevelt’s description of December 7, 1941, the attack on Pearl Harbor – September 11 passes with decreasing notice. We remember, but we have acclimated to the changes the attacks wrought. September 11 remains very real for the families of 2,977. But, sadly, the cohesiveness that most Americans felt after that Tuesday morning has faded.
It is our challenge to restore that cohesiveness – to come together not just in response to a tragedy, but for every day.
- A little more than two years later, I would begin teaching a similar seminar at the University of Louisville.
- My wife was already airborne flying from Boise to Detroit. Her plane was ordered to land at Denver. The next day, she rented a car and drove home.
- Inscription on the base of the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor