On a day like today, people aren’t saying this. But the truth is that there are ways in which September 11, 2001, was exactly like any other day. I was a senior at Scarsdale High School, located just north of New York City, and as usual, first period had ended at 8:55 AM. By 9:01, I was sitting in Mr. Maguire’s American History class, groaning (just like everyone else) as he handed out a pop quiz. And just like any other day, Ben Rappaport rolled into class ten minutes late. Mr. Maguire looked disapprovingly at him and then at his watch, eyebrows raised, waiting for what he knew what would be either a lame excuse or a lame apology. Ben had neither.
In one sentence, he told us he’d heard on the radio that a plane had struck the World Trade Center.
I wish I could say that we were all stunned, shocked into silence. But the truth is that we had no idea how to react. It was such a bizarre statement to make. I recall that some of us even laughed nervously. Ben was known to be a total goof, and he frequently left us in tears we were laughing so hard. But this was a truly weird thing to have said, and none of us knew quite what to make of it. We just sort of sat there awkwardly, looking to our teacher for his reaction.
“Well, I guess we know what will be front page news tomorrow morning!” Because at this time, somewhere around 9:10 AM, nobody knew anything. Assuming Ben was telling the truth, a small private plane could have had technical problems and accidentally skimmed by the edge of one of the towers, and at most it’d be a segment on the evening news.
It’s strange to think that as thousands of people were fleeing a scene of unimaginable terror, while others were instantly crushed by the magnitude of a fiery explosion, and still others were heroically rushing into the flames to save lives, I was taking a pop quiz on American history. Just like any other day, I was calmly looking over my carefully typed notes from the previous night’s homework, my mind entirely occupied by important moments in the past that had shaped our history as a nation. How funny it is to think that while I was studiously considering the past, the future was violently unfolding less than 30 miles to the south.
Every time I think about that day, a different scene comes to my mind – like snapshots, or a montage. Sometimes it’s the crowd that gathered in the library after second period, when students’ cellphones could be turned on and news started to spread like wildfire. The library was next to my history class, and it was the only accessible place in the building with a television. I remember our Principal, Mr. Klemme, turning away from the tv and saying he was going to turn it off; he didn’t want us seeing that at school. As the words came out of his mouth, the first tower shuddered and then collapsed on the screen behind him.
Sometimes I think about Mr. Maguire’s words that morning – the front page of tomorrow’s newspaper. Not that we didn’t have televisions back then, but as a new media communications professional, I think about how different crises are nowadays. In January 2009, when a plane crashed into the Hudson River, Janis Krums snapped a photo on his phone and uploaded it to Twitpic. Almost instantly, it became breaking news on Twitter. The news media didn’t arrive on the scene for almost 17 minutes. If we’d had Twitter in 2001, would lives have been saved? Would we have known more, sooner? Would it have mattered?
I didn’t know until much later what my mother went through that day. She worked on Wall Street, and like thousands of others, she was evacuated that day. And so sometimes the image that comes to my mind is from that evening, when she finally got home (we’d been let out of school early), when I took her purse to hang in the closet and three purple, dark chocolate Hershey kisses fell out of the side pocket. She didn’t look at me as she said that someone – I don’t remember who – had been handing out sugar to people who had to trek across the Brooklyn Bridge that morning to escape the fire and smog. It had been a terrifying experience.
People say the world changed after September 11, 2001. It’s true. But what I never personally realized was how September 11 was going to impact my future career as well. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been interested in human rights. In 2001, my senior year of high school, I was head over heels in love with Free the Children, an international anti-child labor organization I volunteered with. In the future, I had plans to work on Capitol Hill, or at the State Department, using public policy to eradicate torture and human trafficking and other such atrocities.
Ten years later, I am a graduate student at Johns Hopkins University, pursuing my Masters degree in Global Security Studies. Because when I finally got to Capitol Hill to work on foreign policy in the Senate, I realized that the world had changed so much that human rights was no longer its own special interest. You simply couldn’t do human rights work that focused just on the law, or just on gender discrimination, or just on poverty.
Now, security was the name of the game. You needed to know about military affairs, and defense spending, and war theory, in order to understand post conflict reconstruction and to appreciate the interconnectedness of world affairs. The program I’m in specifically takes this interdisciplinary approach – we’re required to take classes in economic security, exploring the financial crisis of 2008 and the stability of global markets. We’re studying energy security, looking at ways the energy markets trigger global events, and how climate change and reliance on oil is propelling refugee crises and economic turmoil and American public policy. I have never had any particular interest in devoting my life to rooting out terrorism, but in a way, the terrorist attacks of September 11 have changed the course of my life in a manner I never could have anticipated.
As we’ve commemorated 10 anniversaries now of that tragic, life altering day in American – and global – history, one thought does always come back to me. It’s about sitting in my classroom, taking a pop quiz, calmly engaged in my own life and my own affairs, as unimaginable terror gripped the nation. And I think of that because while the attacks on September 11, 2001 changed the country – and because we are a global superpower, the world – there are things about that day that are just like any other day.
Every day, unimaginable terror strikes people all over the world. Seemingly every time I sit in the tiny coffee shop near my apartment in our nation’s capital, where I type these words out now, suicide bombers are walking into marketplaces. Slave traders are trafficking people across borders. Armed militias are invading villages. People are suffering at the hands of other people.
Yet at the same time, people are living at the hands of other people. All over the world, people are, in their own ways, rushing into the flames to save lives. People are working hard to discover new technologies, to provide aid to the poor, to ensure justice for the oppressed, and to come together as a global community to provide freedom and security for one another. Just as they were on that awful day 10 years ago.
September 11, 2001 changed the world forever. And yet, in some ways, it really was a day just like any other.