I remember how the new millennium felt like some mountain range far way, like something that was on the horizon but would take forever to reach. Then, as it approached, there was the Y2K anxiety that was pushed on us, that impending collapse of our computer systems, which never materialized.
It wasn’t until that beautiful September day 20 years ago this Saturday that the millennial difference arrived, the new reality of the 2000s. That day altered so much, and not in a good way. Many of us were awakened to something much crueler in the world than we understood. It was just shocking and remains so. I’ll never understand why people can be that way, so murderously sure of themselves. The certainty that dehumanizes others enough to slaughter them is dangerous in so many forms. It is a human mental virus, and unfortunately, it can be very contagious. Sept. 11 seemed like a heavyweight sucker-punch that threw the world into a disorienting place. There’s so much to say about the politics of all this, about Afghanistan, Iraq, our foreign policy, fundamentalist ideologies, all that. Those topics warrant many columns, many discussions. In many ways, today’s rage seems tied to that day, just splintering off in different ways. There wasn’t just a terrible loss of life that day. Many of us lost a kind of naivete, which was replaced with a harsh cynicism about the world.
But the day itself warrants a central focus at anniversaries, with reflections on our personal and collective histories. Everything was strange that day. I remember it was a Tuesday, a production day at the paper, and several of us sat at lunch in the Mexican restaurant across from the old Jackson County Comprehensive High School, a couple of miles from MainStreet Newspapers’ main office. The news wasn’t on TV at that restaurant. No, they had Yogi Bear on the tube at lunchtime. Our old world was crumbling with something awful and new taking shape, and they had cartoons blasting for their few customers. It was surreal, listening to the goofy talk of that bear, while this new heaviness weighed on us all.
I remember the ring of the phone and my dad’s voice. Phones rang everywhere that day with hearts beating fast and anxieties rising. Where is my son? Where is my girl? What about mom? Thousands of people made those phone calls that day, with only voicemail in response, the knot in the gut growing with each moment of absence.
On that morning, we didn’t know the extent of the attack. We heard about a suspicious truck parked in front of the federal building in Athens. We wondered how many planes had been hijacked. What was the scale of this? Were small towns under attack too? Would there be attacks the next day or next week? Obviously, we wondered who did this and why?
I don’t think the “why” will ever be satisfactorily answered.
I still have the Sept. 12, 2001 New York Times. It has yellowed over two decades. And every few years I’ll pull it out and remember how simultaneously real and unreal the moment was.
I did that again this week. It’s strange to hold the Sept. 12 paper for many reasons, and one is the dissonance of routine news throughout the inside sections. There were stories in the works prior to the attack. And so there was an arts section. There was business news.
But when the attack happened, you can see that the paper threw everything it had into telling the story. The first section is 28 pages and entirely devoted to the terrorist attack. I think of the editors having to meet and think of every angle of what had just happened in their city. The lead headline is big by New York Times standards. They are known for modest point sizes on headlines. “U.S. Attacked” is probably around an 80-point Times font. Media are frequently criticized for inflating stories beyond their actual importance. But this was an example of the opposite. There’s no way to rightly blow up such a story to meet its actual weight on the world. Nothing suffices.
Beneath that headline, the front page addresses the general questions: who, what, when, where and why. It’s an overview of the day’s attacks and the President’s response. Inside you have stories about the rescue workers rushing in who didn’t return, an article and diagram on the architecture of the towers, and a piece on how the crash of the towers registered on earthquake-reading instruments at Columbia University, which is 10 miles from Manhattan. There were articles on the citizens’ horror as they looked up, the city government trying to command an emergency when the Emergency Command Center, located in the Trade Center, was destroyed. There are articles about the flood of anxious calls clogging phone lines, companies scrambling to find their employees along with the thousands of family members, the cancellation of city primary elections that had just opened that Tuesday, the city transit system being shut down, the parents converging on local schools to get their kids, the thousands of people crossing bridges out of town on foot, timelines of what happened, maps of where things happened, security concerns across the country at airports and the shut down of air travel, which stranded many thousands.
There were articles about those on the hijacked planes and the phone calls they made, the emotional and psychological vulnerability that stretched far outside of the city. There were stories on the reactions globally, how the markets responded, how the armed forces were preparing, what lawmakers were saying, what the intelligence agencies had to say about the signs of an attack. There were articles on the reaction of tourists and the way the web (still in an early stage) responded. There were columns and editorials from opinion writers struggling to make some sense of something only hours old: “The War Against America,” “A New Day of Infamy,” “A Different World,” “A Grave Silence,” “America’s Emergency Line: 9/11.”
Amid all the text were the horrific images caught from up close. There is the “dust lady” who was the subject of an iconic photo still shown. The woman was Marcy Borders and she was in a nice business suit but covered in soot at the Trade Center. She died in 2015 of cancer at the age of 42. There was the shot of a man plummeting headfirst toward the ground, one leg bent at the knee, one straight. He’s in a white shirt and black pants and the long columns of the Trade Center are in the picture behind him. The most nightmarish shot is of people crowded at the windows above the crash site. There are many pictures of hands raised to mouths, people embracing in tears, rubble, people fleeing. The images are powerful.
All of this happened within a few hours. There was a deadline to meet. And once that paper was printed, they had to start over again, telling the story of a city and country trying to cope.
It’s a day that has stretched for years. And we’re still trying to make sense of it.
I won’t ever throw that paper away. It is the hard copy of the day the millennium changed, the day our modern reality took a new, much more difficult shape. It was also the last moment I remember a nation seeming unified.
It sure feels like calamity further separates us these days, instead of uniting us. How do we change this? That’s our great undoing, not the attack.
Zach Mitcham is editor of The Madison County Journal. He can be reached at email@example.com.