Everybody has been writing about where they were when the 9/11 attacks were reported, so I suppose I might as well get mine off my chest, too.
I was actually teaching 8th grade English in a small Illinois town when it happened, and I missed it. School there started promptly at 8:00 a.m., and although we had televisions with cable in every classroom, we didn't use that particular feature much.
I didn't find out that anything was wrong until my 2nd-hour students began filtering in; a few came straight to my desk.
"Mr. Gwinn! You have to turn on the TV! This guy just crashed into the twin towers!"
"Twin towers?" (I was a country boy from Illinois--I honestly had no idea what they were talking about.)
"In New York! These huge buildings--this guy flew an airplane right into the building!"
"All right, guys, that's really not funny. If that really happened, people would really die. Let's get to our seats and get to work--we've got a lot to do."
That's right--when 9/11 happened, I was pretty sure it was a hoax my students were playing on me. When they convinced me to turn on the TV, there were the towers, with smoke billowing and the news crawl on the bottom of the screen. Even then, I remember wondering whether this was really an accident; actually, I remember several students saying they thought it was probably a deliberate attack. We left the news on, intending to watch a few more minutes, shut it off, and get on with our day.
Then the second plane hit, and I knew there would never be any way back to the old world.
We toggled between FOX and CNN all day. I tried to discuss what was going on with the students, but I didn't have any answers for them. We talked a little about Bin Laden--we had actually talked a bit about him when we discussed the bombing of the U.S.S. Cole--but remember, we weren't at all certain for awhile whether he'd actually done it. Nobody was taking responsibility that day, and I remember being puzzled by that.
A few things I remember that I don't see many others talking about:
1. I remember that there were reports that 50,000 people worked in the towers . . . and many of us were trying to think what 25,000-45,000 casualties would do to the world. We didn't think that was unlikely at all--frankly, we had no idea how amazingly well the evacuation would go. 3,000 dead is a figure that gets bandied about a lot now. It's real, and it's horrible. But I don't want to forget how bad it could have been.
2. I remember reports on CNN and FOX of car bombs, truck bombs, hostage situations, and terrorist sightings all over. We (as in, all of us--America) were frantic and convinced that there were terrorists around every corner.
3. A new (and as it turned out, short-lived) sense of unity between rural and urban dwellers emerged almost instantly. Where I live, New York City is not held in high esteem by many. But when we watched their buildings burn, their people screaming in the blinding clouds of dust and smoke, blood caking the dusty remnants of their city's greatest monument to their faces . . . they were just Americans after all. We wanted to donate our blood (remember the rush to donate barrels of blood, even though it was really too late to donate in time for the blood to help with the immediate trauma in NYC?) And we DID give. It helped somebody, after all, and what else could you do? What we wanted to do was shoot the motherfuckers who hurt our friends in New York and Washington in their faces, but we couldn't really do that either.
4. The public perception of New York City changed in a week or two, turning around 180 degrees. It's true that New York had been getting safer for years under Giuliani (whether he made it happen or not, it happened.) But the general perception, at least around here, was that New York was a city of pimps, thieves, murderers and looters; the decent people living in New York were the ones who couldn't afford to move out or the "elites" in Manhattan who liked living in their version of Sodom on the Hudson. At some point after 9/11, it became clear that the rampant looting, murdering and generally disgusting behavior we all expected were not coming. I don't know anyone who didn't have a grim prediction that riots and looting were right around the corner. I predicted it, too.
I wonder whether anyone else out there remembers an unaired episode of the old NBC cop show "Third Watch." The show starred the psychic guy from Heroes as a gruff NYC cop, but it portrayed cops, medics, and firefighters on the third watch. Pretty good show. Anyway, right before 9/11 happened, they were advertising a multi-episode "mini-series event." The plot was to follow the cast through the night of a power outage in NYC. In accordance with the assumptions of the time, a power outage in New York inevitably led to rioting. The money scene in the previews was the older cop and his younger partner sitting in a police van with a bunch of other officers in full riot gear, gripping nightsticks. There were no windows, but something outside was clearly rocking the van's body back and forth. The younger cop was breathing in and out in ragged spurts, staring at the ceiling, desperately trying to master his fear. His older partner shouts at him over the sound of the riot outside, "Keep your back against mine no matter what happens!"
Then the cut to darkness.
After 9/11 . . . . that episode would have caused riots everywhere but New York. You couldn't say a bad word about New York, and you certainly couldn't get away with saying that New Yorkers would seize any excuse to riot. As far as I know, those episodes simply never aired.