For me, it is hard to remember when the date “September 11” had no extra weight. The day was one out of 365. Ordinary. Average. I mean, one of my friends from college (who later officiated my wedding) birthday is on September 11 but other than that, the day carried no additional value.
2001. The tragic and historic day that all changed.
That Tuesday morning I had no classes. Always nice to sleep in during my senior year in college. Atleast until, oh, 9am- I forget what time chapel started exactly. I was a senior at Grace College in Winona Lake, IN, a sleepy and small Midwest college town that was near Warsaw and about 45 minutes from Fort Wayne.
At the time, I was a resident assistant (RA) so my job was to somewhat keep an entire hall of guys in line or be a leader or something. I lived in Kent Hall which is apartment-style living. This building was newer when I attended school so it was nice and the atmosphere was epically quiet.
Anyway, my alarm went off. I took a shower, got dressed, put some books in my backpack for classes later on that day and started walking to chapel out of our dorm across a practice soccer field (which served mainly to entertain intramural sports). I cannot stress enough how absolutely ordinary this morning was and I sensed nothing was different. Strolled past the science hall, the gym, took a left by Philathea walking across a parking lot and into McClain Hall where in the basement, the student body gathered for chapel service (if I remember right, chapel was Tuesday through Thursday). Students were getting seated and I had found a seat, if I recall, somewhere in the middle looking toward the stage. Again, I was totally oblivious but I think the people around me that I was chatting with were too. My senses picked up nothing wildly different.
As I remember, the service was late getting started. Eventually Jim Swanson (the dean of students) walked up to the stage and grabbed a microphone. Now, Jim was a big man and by big, I mean tall. Maybe 6’7 or 6’8 or perhaps my mind is betraying me (he could correct the record of course). In my interactions with Jim, he was a solid guy and fair in his dealings with students in my experience but we did get the sense that one did not want to screw around with him.
Jim, who could be an imposing figure to some, started to cry as he gripped the microphone. I had never seen him cry and he muttered a sentence: “Perhaps the worst terrorist attack in our country’s history has happened this morning.” The statement was barely finished before more tears came. An eerie silence fell over the entire room which was a decent sized space. I didn’t move in my chair. I had no idea what the hell he was talking about. More reporting came from him or someone else in the room, “A plane has hit the World Trade Center.” A shock came over me. The state of bewilderment was so considerable that I was trying in my mind to picture what the World Trade Center looked like and I couldn’t do it regarding one of the most famous landmarks in our country.
More reports from the audience (maybe from Dr. Mark Soto who still teaches there). “Another plane has hit the second tower.”
Somebody else. “A plane has hit the Pentagon.”
And another. “A plane has crashed in Pennsylvania.”
Different individuals kept calling out reports from the audience.
After that last report, I witnessed students exiting to the right in McClain Hall in a panic. Being that our school was in Indiana, a lot of the student body was from Pennsylvania and were presumably going to call their family to make sure they were OK. All that to say, even in a small Midwestern town far away from the horrors of that day, the terror and trauma was considerable.
For an extended moment, it felt like my (and indeed probably all of ours) world was crumbling. Were there more planes that would attack? Were we going to be invaded? Who did this? I assume that most of you reading this lived through the 9/11 terror attacks and remember how haunting some of those questions were when we did not have any answers. Truth be told, the initial impression of the world crumbling was accurate. Nothing has been the same since.
Classes were cancelled for the rest of the day and I retired to my dorm apartment with friends including my roommate, Zach. We had cable news on for most of the day that was following the coverage and playing the excruciating shots of the planes over and over again. There was anger. There was the “we are going to kick someone’s ass” and the anger within ourselves and across the nation was understandable.
The finest moments of George W Bush’s presidency were in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. His speech that day reflected on the duality of human beings: “Today, our nation saw evil, the very worst of human nature, and we responded with the best of America, with the daring of our rescue workers, with the caring for strangers and neighbors who came to give blood and help in any way they could.” For a little while, there was an uncanny unity in our country behind the president’s leadership but it was short lived.
Regardless of the politics that came in the wake of September 11th, nearly 3,000 image bearers of God lost their lives that day. Many first responders, police officers and firefighters and medical personnel, rushed toward burning and collapsing buildings to save lives. Some of those people still suffer from that heroic decision with cancer and other physical elements as a result of that day.
When we say #neverforget I often wonder what people mean. What is it that we want to remember? Do we want to recollect on a time where radicalized ideological terrorists caught us off guard? Or do we want to remember the people, the fellow citizens, who lost lives and the aid workers who risked everything to save and help as many as they could?
What have we learned from 9/11? I mean, we have bolstered our national security apparatus but have we thought through other elements of this infamous day? What all is there to learn? How do we think about such a dark time in our nation’s history and indeed, a heavy dark shadow that still hangs over us? The process of thinking about this lone day is far from over and I still wrestle with this collective tragedy in my own soul.
***EDIT on 9/12/2017- I have been informed that Dr. Mark Soto actually no longer teaches at Grace College. Also, not all classes were cancelled on September 11, 2001 (professor discretion) but mine were.