Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Where were you when...?

I remember as a kid, people from my parents’ generation and earlier having the “where were you the day they shot Kennedy?” talk.  In its time, it was the proverbial shot heard round the world.  As shocking and tragic as that day was, a far darker day was in store for my generation, which would lead to similar discussions for decades to come. 

On September 11, 2001, I was sitting drowsily in a photography class at Santa Fe Community College in my hometown of Gainesville, Florida, when someone walked in and interrupted our instructor to say a plane just crashed into the World Trade Center.  The instructor made a slightly inappropriate joke about one of his favorite stories of a B52 bomber that once crashed into the Empire State Building in the 1950s.  We all just chalked it up to another crazy, random event and went back to discussing an upcoming assignment.  Little time passed, then another student entered to share that a second plane just flew into the towers.  Our stunned instructor apologized for his previous comments and dismissed any who would like to see what was happening.  It wasn't long before TV's were wheeled out into the halls, where crowds of students watched in horror as people jumped and fell to their deaths from the upper stories of the smoldering twin towers ~ each crowd uttering similar gasps of terror as the towers collapsed. 

Santa Fe Community College in 2004 (courtesy of Google Earth)

It is one of only a few moments in my life, when I witnessed a turning point in history; in this instance, one that would resonate through our society and culture in such a way that it fundamentally altered the way we view ourselves and the rest of the world.  For the first time that I can recall, the veil of safety was pulled back to reveal the worst and most frightening face of humanity; our world would never be the same again.  I remember running the grand tour of all my friends that day, commiserating in mutual disgust and anger.  The radio seemed to play Five for Fighting’s until-then, underrated tune on an endless loop and the news provided 24 hour continuous footage of the horrors that befell the citizens of New York that day, much to the detriment of our emotional stability; it wasn't healthy, but we all watched ~ nothing else mattered. 

In the first episode of The Daily Show following the attacks, Jon Stewart struggled to maintain his composure as he discussed having to witness that day’s events from his home, within full view of the twin towers.  That day and the events that followed would change the trajectory of his show, and give his comedy purpose.  Stewart was among many personalities that would rise from this tragedy and go on to influence diverging perspectives on our country and the world. 

September 11 was a rare moment of American solidarity ~ we stood unified in horror and anger.  What happened next is history, but these events continue to unfold.  American solidarity is a contradiction in terms these days, except when describing the reverence we share for those first responders, the heroes in the buildings and on the street (many surviving to suffer debilitating medical conditions that will be with them the rest of their lives), and the countless others we lost that day. 

New York's "Tribute in Light" (Associated Press)
Over the course of our daily lives, we passively bear witness as history is born, frequently oblivious to the events that will define our past and shape the future.  Maybe once in a generation or so, it seems, lightning strikes and something happens that is so exceptional (or terrible, as in this case) that we collectively come to a sudden stop and watch history in the making.

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