Please note, the following intermixes levity with seriousness because that’s how I chose to write, or at least how it came out. And, admittedly, this piece is more a mildly self-indulgent rambling than stating a coherent position. Still, I felt compelled to write and share, and it’s your choice to read or pass.
I remember Sept 11, 2001 like it was yesterday, which is saying a lot for a guy who is only about 50% certain what he had for lunch – I probably had grapes because there were grapes in the fridge when I grabbed a beer after the kids were in bed. I remember walking out of the dorm that September morning, on my way to a Spanish class whose sole purpose in my life has been to allow me to sound like a pretentious snob with an affected accent when I order the quesadilla for my daughter at Chipotle (or better yet, and more honestly, when I order the quesadilla for myself at Taco Bell). I was on my way to out the door of the dorm when a couple of guys sitting in a room stopped me as they looked away from the television and asked if I had heard about the plane that crashed into the World Trade Center. I said I hadn’t, then continued out the door. I figured that it simply was some unfortunate accident at that point, a small or solo flight piloted by someone who had made a terrible mistake. If a tragic plane crash could claim the life of John Denver (RIP, he-who-gaveth-WVU-Country-Roads), why not the WTC?
However, it quickly became clear from the chatter (in Ingles, to the chagrin of Senorita… Okay, I forget my Spanish professor’s name, but I do recall she was French, so you’ll forgive me for being fuzzy on the details) in Spanish class that this was no mistake. The dawning realization was that this was intentional. I made it back to my dorm, and the updates kept coming. The gravity of it all began to smack me in the face as the professor of my honors class made the decision that we would not have class as normal, but could watch the updates on television. This was real. This was bad. This was really bad.
I remember trying to call my girlfriend at that time, and not being able to get through because phone lines were all tied up. I remember trying to look online to get updates from the web, and the Internet crashing/running ridiculously slow (and not just because it was 2001). I remember staying up late talking with my roommate and his girlfriend (or soon to be girlfriend, I forget when they became official) and getting my first citation for breaking dorm rules by having someone of the opposite sex in our dorm room past 10 PM. To this day, I really would like to find the RA who decided to make their stand on rigidly enforcing the rules on this night, of all nights, and ask them if they feel petty and small and silly. They probably don’t, as drunk with power as they were, but I’d like to at least ask them.
All this happened my freshman year of college. I was just a week or two away from home, on my own, beginning my ascent of the ivory tower. I was thinking big thoughts and dreaming big dreams. I was going to be my own man and develop my own ideas and be a real adult. And against this back drop, the formative years of college and my early adulthood played out. When I think of 9/11, I think of it less so in terms of just that day, and more so in terms of how that day set the stage for years to come. It revealed to me things that otherwise may have remained hidden, or at least not been apparent until I was much older.
For example, I fancied myself a Republican when I was 18 years old, and I voted for Bush proudly in 2000 (though I had voted for McCain in the primary). I also identified as a Christian, and took seriously the ideals of Christ, which I believed included nonviolence. I also grew up with a best friend who happened to be Muslim, and I knew very personally from the example of his life that Islam is a religion of peace and love, and those vile men who hijacked those planes represented nothing of the faith tradition they claimed. And, quite foolishly and naively, I thought other reasonable, well-meaning, intelligent adults who claimed the same labels as me would see things similarly to how I saw them. Or at least adults on a college campus. If college campuses were a hotbed of protests against the Vietnam War and breeding grounds for liberal, hippie ideals, surely even a moderately conservative Methodist university like mine could muster some significant pockets of free thought.
However, I instead saw a significant number of people willing to sacrifice liberty in the hopes of trying to gain some safety, and getting neither in return. I saw people conflating unquestioningly following and supporting the President with patriotism, supporting military action with supporting the troops, and terrorism with Muslims (or anyone who looked Muslim, or at least different). I saw people, people who professed to be and held themselves out as good Christians, suggesting things such as “kill them all, and let ‘Allah’ sort them out.” It broke my heart and rocked my world, shaking my very understanding of who I was and who others were to its fragile core.
It took me a long time to come to grips with the fact that I am not a Republican (I also eschew the Democrat label, but I’ll own being so ridiculously liberal Bernie Sanders sometimes makes Commie jokes about me). It also took me a long time for me to reconcile my love of my country and its beautiful ideals with my complete and utter distaste for those running it and those who claim (or imply to claim) to have the market cornered on patriotism, as if someone can own love of one’s country and make it into a singular brand (buy your lapel flag pin today!). It also took some serious soul searching to reconcile my following Jesus with the vitriol I saw some spew in the name of Christ, to realize the Christ I follow may look radically different than the fictional American Jesus some tried to peddle in a false and self-serving narrative of American exceptionalism, rather than confront the hard truths of trying to make their lives conform to the teaching of Jesus instead of vice-versa.
So today, I recall 9/11, not just as a singular day. Certainly, it is worthy of pausing and remembering in and of itself, to celebrate the lives of the innocent people who died that day and the heroes who gave their lives trying to help them. But I more so recall an event, a happening so unique, so extraordinary, that it has defined the bulk of my adulthood. For better or worse, as Thursday suggested in their song War All The Time, I grew up in the shadow of the New York skyline.