September 11, 2006

September 11, five years later

Personal recollections

Five years ago, I remember heading to class just before 10 on a Tuesday morning and stopping by the gathering of people looking at the monitor that someone had changed to CNN. Some time before, a colleague had knocked on my office door while I was screening the PBS documentary School. She was looking for someone with news on. I was caught up in a segment, she closed the door quietly, and only after the segment was done did I wander out and discover the attacks. Then, as I was headed to class, I watched the images of WTC 2 dissolving. I felt sick, thought about the other tower still standing, and stumbled to the classroom.

More is in the complete entry.

My students sitting in the room didn't know about the collapse of the tower, but most knew of the attacks, or some version of them given the confusion at the time. With a flat voice, I told them roughly what I knew, that this probably wasn't a good day to have a class, and that we'd get together again on Thursday. Then I walked out, back to the hallway where the television was on, looked for a few seconds, and went back to my office. I went by the monitor a few more times that day, but I spent more time online trying to catch news, among the sites that weren't flooded.

I was never so relieved to live without a television as in the following weeks. Several times a day, I saw students and staff transfixed in the hallway, watching the monitor tuned to CNN. The crawl on the bottom of the tube—that damned crawl!—suggested that the next disaster was just waiting to be announced, and you had to watch continually so as not to miss the news. I didn't have to wonder what it did to children. The daughter of one friend kept watching the news and the replays of the towers' collapse over and over again, until her mother finally turned the television off.

The day after the attacks, I tutored a child in my daughter's 4th-grade class as I usually did on Wednesdays, but her teacher asked me to stay afterwards, and she opened up the class to student questions. I think she wanted to do that but needed some support. My daughter's classmates had the usual sharp questions you'd expect from 9-year-olds: would my parent working at MacDill Air Force Base be in danger? do they know who caught it? I heard [whatever rumor was floating around him or her]; is that true? The previous academic year, most of the same class had been together for the excitement of the 2000 election recount controversy. This was an utterly different history in the making.

Over the week, I did the same checking-up on friends and family that I think many of us did. I didn't know anyone who died, but I know a few who had close calls one way or another. One of my cousins worked opposite WTC, and he was probably saved from having glass fall on him during his exit from the WTC subway station at his usual time by his stopping to vote that morning. I wonder how many people the primary saved. Someone from college I dated for a short time lived in the WTC neighborhood, and she and her family evacuated because of the pollutants.

Professional perspectives

Late on September 11, I became disgusted with the first attempts to guess at the body count. How morbid, I thought, and then kept running things back in my head about the scale of disasters in U.S. history. The Galveston hurricane of 1900 (about 6,000 dead). But that was a natural disaster. News broadcasters mentioned Pearl Harbor (2,403 dead). There was D-Day, with its unknown dead (somewhere between 2,500 and 5,000, I've seen). But I kept thinking of the highest one-day casualty figure in the Civil War: the battle of Antietam. While about 3,600 died that day, certainly hundreds more who were declared missing had actually died, and probably a few thousand of the battle's wounded died from infections. I thought about the offices in the WTC and the Pentagon and the thousands who worked in those places daily. I kept thinking, Please let it not be an Antietam or worse. And gave blood later that week.

For all the horror of that day, it wasn't Antietam. More than 2,000 died, and who knows how many survived by sheer luck. As with my cousin, we'll never really know what would have happened. It was bad enough, as it was.

And now, more American soldiers have died in the invasion and occupation of Iraq than died that day. More American soldiers have died in this war/occupation than died in the War of 1812 or died in the Spanish-American War. If he had not chosen to invade Iraq, I suspect President Bush would be seen as a largely successful president, however polarizing. But one must be careful in playing what-if.

I decided to do something constructive with my own feelings about the impending war against someone (we knew fairly quickly, probably Afghanistan's Taliban rulers as well as al-Qaida). Five years ago, minus 8 days, the History News Service distributed my op-ed column, War May Raise Serious Issues at Home. Written hurriedly after President Bush's address to the country, it shows obvious signs of oversimplification (factual goofs are left as an exercise for the reader), but it's interesting to look at my argument anticipating debates over the role of the federal government and think of what I did get right.

Maybe there's a crystal ball in my future, after all, if I only bring it out every once in a while. Richard Jensen's 1998 prediction that Clinton would resign was not that accurate, though he was bolder than I was. I could not have anticipated a war in Iraq being justified by an Al-Qaida attack. But there are always surprises.

One such surprise is the failure to link education with the war on terror. This has surprised me, because it's a common pattern of education politics to urge schools to help fight the national enemy, whether the enemy is the Soviet Union, poverty, racism, or our economic competitors. So why not terrorism? Who knows.

And then, of course, there was the explosion of conflict on my own campus, at the end of the fall semester. A few weeks after September 11, the Fox News O'Reilly Factor producers invited computer-science professor Sami Al-Arian onto the show, he thought to discuss civil rights and what he alleged were his interfaith efforts. The red label on the screen for the country was terrorism at usf?, and the phones were ringing off the hook in the president's office for weeks. Al-Arian was given paid leave, there was extraordinary pressure to fire him for pretextual reasons, the faculty became disillusioned with our administration's attacks on academic freedom, and the shadow of the controversy dogged the campus for months. But that's another story, about which I had a hand in explaining in an article co-written with colleague Greg McColm. Surprises indeed.

And one more: I didn't expect to go on for so long. We all have our recollections and perspectives now.

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Posted in History on September 11, 2006 7:32 PM |