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Friday, September 11, 2009

I was brushing my teeth. 10:15 Central Time. The bathroom closest to the front desk in my university residence hall. Some guy ran in. This is (approximately) what followed:

"Dude, someone attacked the World Trade Center. They think 50,000 people might be dead."

"C'mon, man, that's not funny."

"No, I'm serious. I wouldn't joke about that."

I finished brushing, and went to the desk. We had a whiteboard that had all the day's news, sports, and weather. Understandably on this day, it had only one item. In a big box underneath everything was a message: "In spite of everything that has happened, we are not going to judge anyone by his or her skin color, religion, or national origin." Or something like that. I have never been so glad to see such a statement ever before. I guess I'm supposed to hate such spasms of political correctness. But there is nothing more conservative than holding individuals (and them alone) responsible for their actions.
I didn't have time to watch the news. I was fairly certain I had a class. I saw my friend Liz Stover (now Garber) on the street, and we discussed what we knew. I made it to class. The only thing I remember was a Syrian guy in my politics class say that we had it coming. What a country, I thought, where this jerk can say this out loud in perfect freedom, even as a guest.
I came back home to the hall later, and President Bush was speaking. I can only remember him saying that we're gonna find out who did this. It seemed like he spoke several times that day, and I was glad. I still remember from when I was a kid: "The President is the president of all the people." Frankly, on that day, I only felt two feelings: shock, and pride. We were acting like we were in a war, and rightly so. Sometimes you fight with your siblings, but if somebody messes with your siblings, they'll pay. I actually wondered how soon we'd take military action, in my gut feeling that I'd support whatever our leaders decided. Bin Laden's name came up the next day, and I wondered how they knew it was him. I forgot about the embassy bombings, but the Cole bombing I recalled. And I think I remembered the first attack on the World Trade Center.
I remember being relieved when the projected death toll was far less than 50,000.
I think it was three days later, when President Bush went to Ground Zero. All I remember is this: "In the past few days, we've heard from police, firefighters, and other heroic rescuers...The people who did this will hear from all of us soon." Jeep. Check. Bullhorn. Check. President who was a fighter pilot. Check. I thought, I'm living Independence Day. What followed was the most uncomfortable 2 minutes I've felt in a long time. The workers started chanting "USA! USA! USA!" and I thought, "That went on far too long." Besides, you chant "USA!" at sporting events, not when you've been attacked.
I got choked up several times in the next weeks, watching President Bush's speech to a joint session of Congress, seeing the footage of people jumping out the windows, hearing about Flight 93. I do remember not arguing politics for at least six weeks. And I knew I was living history. We only hope we're worthy of being called Americans, like the generations before us.
Later, I recall being of the opinion that there was no way President Bush would lose the next election. It just seemed like he was so good at being our voice then that he'd earned the extra 4 years right there. I seriously doubted that we'd be so miffed about the economy to forget this. Or the kicking a-- and taking names that was sure to follow. The niceties of diplomacy weren't on my mind, either.
We got back to fighting about politics, but it wasn't the same. It still isn't. One thing about it: we all got in a few shots at President Bush for all sorts of reasons. But it wasn't just a formality to say, "Thanks for what you did after 9/11." I think most people really hated to criticize him later on, and he really didn't lose that benefit of the doubt for about 5 years. That's good and bad, I guess.

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