My reason for writing this is not because I believe that 9/11 affected me more profoundly than others. I doubt that is true. There are many compelling stories, all of which alter the storyteller and listener in its telling. I hesitated to write this except that my 9/11 experience is unusual and people are often surprised to hear it. Also, recalling my story in light of the current threat that has been in the news made me feel that I had something to say about fear.
In September 2001, we were in the middle of a week-long, cross-country road trip from Philadelphia to San Diego. The intent of the trip was to move items from my father’s home to my new home in San Diego. My future husband was driving with me, and we had planned a stop at his apartment in Boulder, Colorado to pick up some of his things along the way. Soon, he would be moving to San Diego to be with me. As I’ve mentioned before, we (individually and together) love driving across the United States, and have done it many times before. For us, this was partially a moving trip, and partially a pleasure trip.
We had rented a Chevy Blazer, a spacious and rugged truck that was less expensive to rent than a U-Haul. After a few days, we arrived at his Boulder apartment and spent the night there. The next morning was September 11, 2001. We were just settling down to eat a breakfast of pancakes a little before 9 am. We turned on the television and saw that one of the World Trade Center towers had been hit by a plane. We looked at each other in complete shock. Did that really just happen? Was it an accident? Are the people OK? As we watched the second plane strike the second tower, we became certain that these were not accidental crashes. We sat in front of our uneaten pancakes until noon, staring blankly at the television as the horrible story unfolded.
We began to discuss what we should do. At this point and for days afterward, no one knew what was really happening or the scope of the attacks. It was a very real possibility that other targets – perhaps many other targets across the country – were to follow. Where could we go that was safe? As we were in the middle of a cross-country road trip, our options were wide open but hindered by the unknown, and weighted by fear. We questioned our plans to continue driving to San Diego, since both San Diego and Los Angeles could be targets as well. Boulder was home to NOAA and so we wondered about the wisdom of staying where we were. We soon realized that the unexpected, amazing resource of having a large truck already packed with our belongings and camping gear might not be a bad thing. We debated about not returning the truck as planned; if this was war, if bedlam was to follow, then we might keep the truck for longer than we had anticipated. Our surprise preparedness seemed like an unexpected gift in the devastating and uncertain situation.
We decided to postpone our decision while gathering more information. We left the city to go someplace remote in case other cities were to be attacked next. We added a hatchet to our belongings in case we would need to camp for a while, and for self-defense. We travelled south with the intent of staying in a campground but soon discovered that all national campgrounds were closed because of the attacks and the widespread uncertainty of whether additional attacks were forthcoming. We eventually found a hotel room in Pueblo, Colorado and called our families to let them know that we were ok. To our disappointment, my ultra-conservative, fundamentalist future in-laws were only concerned about one thing: whether we had one or two hotel rooms for the night. We told them we had one room, which met with icy silence. To them, it did not matter that it was the night of September 11, 2001, or that we felt afraid and unsafe; we should be staying in separate rooms. The next day we travelled on, cautiously approaching the highly-populated area of San Diego. Along the way, we focused on information gathering, and tried to prevent fear from clouding our ability to think clearly. We were not always successful.
Of course, hindsight is 20/20. As history unfolded we realized that the attacks were confined to the east coast. However, the best decision to make at the time regarding what to do and where to go had been a complete mystery, compounded by our relative isolation of the road trip. Likewise, the fear that spread around the country that day and the days following was tangible and profound. Our fear changed us all in many ways beyond the damage caused by the attacks. I believe that the effects of those attacks can still be felt today, as 9/11 started a legacy of war and fear that remains. I believe that much of our current economic problems can be traced back to 9/11 and the chain reaction that it caused. One attack, and our country imploded for years. Fear is efficient and powerful, and once entrenched does not require sustained action. Like a stone thrown in a still pond, 9/11 created ripples of fear into the future: fear of another attack, fear of the unknown, fear of strangers, fear of different cultures and religions and fear of weak governments that could harbor those who want to harm us. The ripples of fear from 9/11 have caused us to give up our basic freedoms through the Patriot Act and our basic decency through the TSA. The alley became dark and we jumped, so we spent more and more money that we didn’t have to keep the light shining in the dark corners of the world until we spent ourselves into financial insecurity. And so the implosion continues.
I write this a few days before the tenth anniversary of the attacks. We have become aware of a “credible” threat to New York. Regardless of whether or not an attack occurs (and let’s pray that it does not), the fear has already gripped us. Regardless of whether or not an attack occurs, we have already been attacked by fear. And the ripples left by fear will erode away at our solid shores as long as we let it.
Does that imply that I, personally, am not fearful? Not at all. Although I recognize the destructive power of fear, it is very hard to squelch these feelings in myself. But perhaps a person better than me will choose not to be fearful and realize that fear does no good service. Perhaps a stronger, more enlightened person can experience deeply that fear is something we give permission to happen to ourselves, particularly when the attacks occurred ten years and (for some) thousands of miles ago.