I wore a brown linen dress and jacket to work on September 11, 2001. After finishing my work-study job at the University of Central Arkansas Office of World Languages (which mostly involved typing up purchase orders and running them back and forth) and going to my public administration class, I was driving to Little Rock to start my first day as an intern in Rep. Vic Snyder’s (D-Ark.) office.
It was a darkly funny time to become a congressional intern after the Monica Lewinsky and Chandra Levy scandals. I figured any congressman worth his salt wouldn’t even speak to interns at that point, but I still looked forward to the afternoon. Then, a French professor, a 60-ish, doughy woman with tufty old lady hair and glasses entered our office with the eyes of a scared animal. “They’re flying planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon,” she told us before running back to hide in her office.
I didn’t believe her. This particular professor was always complaining or panicking about something or other, so I figured she’d misheard a news report and was just blathering on about it. I opened my computer browser to check MSNBC.com, just in case. When the website wouldn’t come up, I realized a lot of people must be checking it. Another professor, the one in charge of the TOEFL program who gave me so many purchase orders to type, turned on the small radio in her office and started listening to NPR. I couldn’t hear the radio well, but something was clearly going on.
An employee named Sharon came into the office and said she was trying to set up a TV in another room. She had really short hair and reeked of patchouli, and she was one of those people who think it’s important to prove their intelligence by always saying something depressing. She pushed a cart carrying one of those old, fat cathode ray TVs into the break room. It could barely pick up an antenna signal, but I could see through the black and white fuzz—and I could hear Dan Rather telling me—both towers of the World Trade Center were on fire.
I’d never been to New York, so I felt no emotional attachment to the Manhattan skyline. At that moment, it was another faraway disaster that had nothing to do with me. I called the congressman’s office and was greeted with a terse, “Don’t come in.” My crying and grim public administration professor said we were at Defcon 5 because she didn’t understand how the levels worked. The biggest takeway was that we didn’t have class, and a day with a packed schedule had become a day off.
All dressed up with nothing to do, I wandered over to the student center. I remember the smell and taste of a toasted bagel with butter, but I don’t remember ordering it. A group of students had gathered around a better television set, so I sat on the cold concrete floor and watched with them for a while. The image was better, but it was hard to hear. I decided to go home.
People do strange things when facing events out of the ordinary. When they hear about a snowstorm, they rush the grocery store for bread and milk. I lived in a mobile home park with my ex-husband (wow, does that sound white trashy!), and there was a gas station around the corner. Feeling tired of cable news, I walked to the gas station to see cars lined up to fill their tanks. Gas wouldn’t help when bombs rained down, but I realized logic didn’t matter. People needed something to do. They hated feeling helpless.
Everyone knows someone who lives in New York City. One of my college friends had just moved there to try to break into opera while working as a security guard. I thought about him and wondered whether he was okay, more out of wanting to feel connected to events than out of actual fear for his well-being. Around 11:00, my ex-husband called me. He was a music teacher at a local elementary school. We exchanged a few sentences, but we didn’t know what to say to one another. The story of our marriage.
I also wondered where President Bush was. According to news reports, they were flying him from place to place, even though all other air traffic had been grounded. In a day full of images, the one I remember most profoundly is the image of all of our senators and representatives gathered on the Capitol steps, singing “God Bless America.” It felt good—and regrettably odd—to see our leaders unified and being decent to one another.
Many people blame President Bush for ignoring intelligence reports suggesting an attack like 9/11 could happen. I never did. You can’t believe an attack is imminent when you don’t even think it’s possible. Once upon a time, an attack like that was unthinkable for all of us. It reminds me of what Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir faced before the Yom Kippur War. They’d had the Munich attacks; we’d had the U.S.S. Cole and the earlier World Trade Center bombing. We had vague intelligence that something might be coming; so did they. But someone’s always plotting against someone else, and it’s difficult to know which threats are credible and which aren’t.
America rarely faces hostility of this sort. After all, we bring wars to others; they usually don’t bring them to us. The truth is we’re a soft people who’ve rarely faced real danger at home. Fourteen years ago, President Bush spoke of the indomitable American spirit and its resolve. When I look around me, I see a country that has let the fear created by 9/11 rob us of the America we were.
Out of fear, we’ve traded intellect, reason, and openness for calls to arm ourselves, adherence to apocalyptic interpretations of faith, and fears that another attack lurks within every calendar square. Every tiny things, like a gay couple getting married, are leveraged by opportunists seeking power, billed as a threat to our way of life, and used for political or material gain. In countries like Israel, people actually face annihilation, every single day. They transform fear into innovation. We’ve let it turn us against one another.
September 11 made Americans a paranoid people and, from my perspective, the terrorists got exactly what they wanted. We’ve been in decline ever since that day. Our infrastructure crumbles. We have no resolve to tackle any problems, from helping children in poverty to providing healthcare for all Americans to developing an economy for the future. It’s everyone for themselves in America today, where your enemy is the single mother, the minority, the non-religious person, the man in a dress. I think when everyone is our enemy, we assume no attack can surprise us. We never have to feel helpless again.
Americans love tough talk and chest-pounding bravado. We like a good American hero, whether it’s John McClane of “Die Hard” or the real heroes of 9/11: our first responders in New York, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania; our active military and veterans, who fearlessly faced danger on our behalf; the people of United 93 who quite possibly prevented a passenger jet from hitting the White House; the child who for the last 14 years quietly and resolutely grew up without a mother or father.
September 11 didn’t demand real courage from most of us, but it certainly made us afraid. Instead of needlessly pumping gas and buying Funyuns, we’re filling our minds with paranoia and false outrage. I don’t know anyone who died on September 11, but I challenge myself to honor their lives by facing down real enemies, not imaginary ones. My enemies are not my dark-skinned neighbors, self-aggrandizing county clerks, homophone-challenged spewers of bile, Vaudevillian presidential candidates, or abstract regimes overseas. My enemies are complacency and inaction, slacktivism disguised as courage, and complaining about how no one else does anything useful instead of being useful to others myself.
Donald Trump might become president, an ayatollah might aim a nuke at us, and Kim Davis might get richer than any televangelist—so what? I choose not to let events I’m powerless to control rob me of the mind power to do something worthwhile. Because when I do, the terrorists win—the real terrorists, not imaginary enemies. And we can’t let them win, my fellow Americans. We’ve given them too much already.