9-11 seems both like it happened a long time ago and that the trauma occurred just yesterday.
Two decades have passed.
That day both broke us and buoyed us as Americans. It also terrified us.
I remember, vividly, in the midst of unimaginable despair watching the bipartisan members of congress gather on the steps of the Capitol, after having been evacuated, and spontaneously breaking into song – God Bless America.
Here’s the C-Span clip.
That gave me hope.
Fear, anger, shock, and a sense of vulnerability washed over every American. We were hurt, angry and we suddenly had a new enemy that we didn’t exactly know how to identify. They had been moving among us, and suddenly, we viewed everyone as suspicious – with reason. We were under attack, caught off guard, vulnerable in a way we never imagined.
How could this happen in America?
How could anyone do this on purpose?
Why would anyone hate us this much?
Both as a nation and as individuals, we struggled to understand, to comprehend the incomprehensible, and to cope.
The personal stories of the victims and their families dwarf the stories of the rest of us. Their pain, then as now, is incomprehensible. The waiting, the fear, the horror.
Yet, every American, even those far removed from danger, has that day seared into their collective consciousness.
9-11 changed lives – almost everyone’s life in one way or another.
We know exactly what we were doing, where we were, who we thought about, and how it made us reevaluate our lives. It moved all of us in different ways.
Twenty years on, two full decades, I remember sitting at a red light. On the car radio, an announcer broke into a song, saying a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. I wondered how a private plane (my assumption) managed to get close enough to crash into the World Trade Center.
That seemed really odd. Probably an accident…but. I called my husband. He had already been informed by his employer and was scrambling.
When the second plane crashed into the building, I realized instantaneously that this was no accident. So did he. Various of my family members sprang into action. I wouldn’t see them again for days or weeks.
As the day unfolded, we had no idea of where the next strikes would be or how many there were. I was with government officials that day and the next – days of planning and strategizing I will never forget. Suddenly, everything was a potential target and vulnerable.
Personal Choices and Tiny Actions
We, collectively, didn’t know what to do. Flights were canceled for days. People just wanted to get home. You couldn’t rent a car for love nor money. Strangers paired up to drive cross-country. Gas was short, priced outrageously, and unavailable in some places.
“Who” was coming after us? Every car became suspicious as did any box. Were bridges going to be blown up, water supplies poisoned? We were collectively on edge.
I had family members in police and emergency services. They could well be in danger – targets more than normal. We all felt like targets, or maybe more like powerless sitting ducks.
Some people reached out to those with whom they had previously been estranged – realizing those differences really didn’t matter. That life was short and precious and might end unexpectedly at any moment.
Were we actively at war and didn’t realize it yet? Military enlistments boomed that day. Those people are eligible to retire today, assuming they survived the resulting wars.
Many people checked on loved ones and neighbors. “How are you doing? Do you need anything?”
People with family members in NYC and DC and on planes in the air were frantic.
Others served in one way or another. The heroism of police, firefighters, paramedics, and volunteers at the crash scenes are legendary.
And those heroic passengers on United Flight 93 who clearly knew they were sacrificing their lives to protect the rest of us. Todd Beamer’s “Let’s Roll” became an immediate call to action and cultural creed. The last words of a hero that inspired us all to action. But what action? We didn’t know.
I doubt those brave people on Flight 93 knew the extent of the plans of those hijackers – targeting the Capitol.
The majority of us couldn’t do much of anything, so we did what we could.
We worried, we donated, we offered shelter, and we planted flags in our yard.
We became ultra-patriots overnight.
In the hours and days that followed, we volunteered. Firefighters, construction workers, volunteers, and specially-trained dogs traveled cross-country to the crash scenes in order to save as many lives as possible, and then recover as many bodies as possible. People made and donated food and water. Everyone wanted to help, to be a part of the solution.
We were collectively in shock.
Hope didn’t die. Neither did our resolve. We would not be defeated in this undeclared war. Yet, we didn’t know how or whom to fight.
What Did I Do?
I was in the car, driving, when the first plane struck. Then the second. Then the Pentagon. Then the first tower fell. A plane crashed into the field in Pennsylvania, and the second tower fell a few minutes later. All of this in less than two unbelievable hours. I was living in a slow-motion audiobook unroll, except this was all too real. Surreal, actually.
It would get even worse, more shocking when I eventually saw the videos.
As I drove to my destination, a governmental conference a few hours away, I realized the horrific magnitude of what was occurring, although we still didn’t know the scope. Everything was still unfolding. How much more was coming? And where? Was anyone safe?
The attack could have been much more widespread and massive than it turned out to be – we had no idea and suddenly, everyone needed to prepare. I started to present my conference session after lunch, but no one was listening. We decided, instead, to have preparatory round-table sessions. That made a lot more sense. Attendees filtered in and out, watching the TVs in the lobby to see if anything else had happened. We were as nervous as that proverbial long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs. Cell phones were ringing like crazy.
I stopped on the drive to the conference to check on a family member in public service, law enforcement, and a firefighter. I left a personal message, just in case. We didn’t know what was coming, how widespread whatever was happening would be, or who would be affected. Were there coordinated attacks planned in cities and towns across the nation?
Earlier that morning, everyone expected to see their loved ones again too – and thousands never would.
A shortened, uncertain version of “forever” was staring every American in the face.
I spent the next couple of days working with municipalities. Multiple family members were involved in various ways.
On my way home, you couldn’t find flags anyplace. I finally located a few and purchased a handful of small flags, about a foot tall and lined them up along the curb in my yard. That seemed so inconsequential in the face of a massive problem, but God Bless America just the same.
I wanted to volunteer on the scenes, but by that time, they had enough volunteers and I settled for working with local authorities. I made “doggie booties” to protect the feet of the search and rescue dogs along with “care quilts” for the victims’ families. I mailed them to organizations for distribution as needed. I have no idea who received those quilts, but I hope they brought the recipients some modicum of comfort – just knowing that some unknown person, someplace, cared.
Processing the Trauma
Quilters began doing what quilters do. We process many things, good and bad, through the act of quilting.
Exhibits occurred in many places around the country, including in New York today. Many quilts honored the victims and expressed hope. Others, grief.
I made a trauma quilt too. Well, sort of.
I’m sure you recognize this image, that iconic skeletal grid standing after the attack.
I cut the black pieces of fabric and ironed them to the background. The edges are raw and in some cases, “sharp.”
The background is smoky red.
I was going to hand quilt an outline of the eagle crying, another iconic image of that day, in the blank space to the right.
But I never did.
This piece, as is, still hangs on the wall of my quilt studio, held in place with pins – not beautifully finished and bound like a piece of art. Just hanging there.
For a long time, I felt it was unfinished, no batting, no backing, no quilting. Just the small “top,” as you see it, hung with inelegant straight pins.
I felt guilty for not finishing it, but just this past week, I realized – it is finished.
It’s not beautiful or completed in a traditional way. It’s raw, the edges unsewn, incomplete – but it conveys, exactly as it is – everything that needs to be said.
Some things are never finished.
Some wounds never heal.
Life is short, uncertain, raw, and sharp.
It’s brutal and we bleed.
Nothing is guaranteed.
Sometimes life blows up in our face.
Or someone blows it up.
I look around, taking stock today – of the raging pandemic and this country. We’re not fighting an external enemy anymore, but fighting those demons of hatred, burning just as hot and even more dangerously – within our own population and our borders.
We can’t recognize this enemy today either, because it’s us – the people who live on our street and in our community – and the hatred that has been slowly fueled and bred in the last two decades.
Hatred, that’s our enemy now – as it was then. But in 2001 we identified the enemy as the foreign terrorist organization Isis and its leaders who recruited and radicalized people willing to die to damage us. It wasn’t “us” back then, it was “them.”
I so desperately want our congressional representatives and elected officials to stand on the Capitol steps and sing together again, and to put the horrific bipartisan backstabbing that is destroying this country aside. We desperately need to heal, not be driven further apart until we literally view our neighbors as the enemy.
The increased and increasing violence and threats of violence tell that story.
Those terrorists tried to destroy us 20 years ago. They failed. Did the fear and undirected hatred emanating from those attacks plant the seeds of what is happening today?
They don’t need to attack us directly again. In fact, that would probably unify us. They certainly don’t want that. Right now, we are destroying ourselves. All they have to do is wait.
We can, we must, do better – or we, as a country, will not survive. They will have indirectly won.
We have work to do.