When I was a freshman in college, at Texas A&M University, on Tuesday and Thursday mornings I had two classes back-to-back in the same lecture hall. Because of a weird scheduling fluke, these classes were about 45 minutes apart, though. During that break, sometimes I would go eat breakfast, other times I would do something else, and occasionally I would just stay in the room and study.
On this particular day, I had decided to catch up on some reading for class, and, as usual, there were a few other students in the room as well. A few minutes after the first class ended, maybe about 9:00 a.m. CDT, someone came in and said something about a plane crashing in New York City. A few minutes later, another student came in and gave more details: it was the World Trade Center. Surely, in my mind at least, this was an accident, a mistake, a human or machine error. What else would make a plane crash into a building?
By 9:10 a.m. the room was buzzing with the news, but it still wasn’t anything out of the ordinary, or at least anything that would affect us way far away in the heart of Texas. Soon after, though, our professor came in the room, a few minutes early, and told us all to go home. I can’t remember exactly what he said (I’m not sure if the word “terrorist” was mentioned), but then it was clear that this was significant.
I lived on campus back then, but since A&M is a very large university, it took about five or ten minutes for me to bike back to my dorm. On the way back, I caught a view of A&M’s centrally located Academic Building, in front of which stood the main flagpole. Although I would find in the future (I had only been at A&M for a couple of weeks at this point) that the flag would often be at half mast, seeing it at that position, at that moment, is one of those images that will probably never escape my mind.
I had brought a TV from home with me when I moved into my dorm, so I turned it on first thing when I walked in the door. It’s hard to remember what was going on at that time–everything felt so chaotic–but by that time the first tower had surely collapsed, and I think I saw the second tower collapse live. In the heat of the moment, though, it’s hard to say for sure.
I was glued to the TV for the rest of the day, and some of my neighbors, who didn’t have a TV, joined me. It was a jarring moment, and it was difficult to make sense of it at the time. Honestly, I can’t even say I remember much of anything I saw that day, other than the flag. Over the next few days, it became exceedingly clear, though, just how much things had changed.
Before September 11, 2001, I never had particularly strong feelings, one way or another, about being American, and, like most Americans, foreign affairs were not generally a daily matter of consideration for me. In the aftermath, though, I found myself inspired by the unity that emerged from the wreckage of the attacks. I was particularly inspired by the show of patriotism during A&M’s first football game after the attacks, when the student body organized itself into stripes of red, white, and blue in the stands. It was truly a sight to behold. On the other hand, I became turned off and disgusted by the ignorant and often violent way I heard my classmates talk about Arabs and Muslims. Vividly, I remember a Middle Eastern friend recounting a story of being pushed off of his bicycle as he was riding through campus.
More significantly, I became increasingly disappointed and even outraged to see a previously unpopular President taking advantage of the situation, using the attacks as a means to consolidate power, build support, push a radical agenda, and do things that went against everything I had naively grown up believing America stood for. I was particularly incensed by the common assumption that the only way to fight violence was with more violence.
If we were so much better than “those people”, then why were we stooping to their level?
For a time, as my classmates became increasingly nationalistic and even jingoistic, I found myself more and more ashamed to be an American. I became angry, disillusioned, hopeless, and apathetic. This was a slow process, and it reached its peak during the summer of 2002.
Eventually, I realized that I was wrong to be ashamed to be an American. I had let those in power define what it meant to be an American, and their definition was patently false. By the time school began again the next fall, I was tired of complaining, and I was ready to do my part. I became involved with the campus Democrats and a variety of other progressive causes. Although this was difficult at a conservative campus in a new paranoid America, I found it rewarding and refreshing.
By the time I graduated from Texas A&M in May 2005, after having spent a year as the President of the Texas Aggie Democrats, among years spent working a variety of progressive endeavors, I felt that we had made significant gains. Our active membership had increased from about ten to over 100, we had a visible presence on campus, we had elected a Democrat to Congress from our district, and, hopefully, we had made our fellow students rethink what exactly it means to be an American, at least the type of American that we can all be proud to be.
What had begun for me as a reactionary response to a group of politicians hijacking America had become a cause in itself, an effort that I know I will be involved with for the rest of my life. I don’t know if I can thank or blame 9/11 for my political awakening–it would have probably happened eventually anyways–but I knew that after observing my nation’s response, I had to act.
The attacks of September 11th were an enormous tragedy that destroyed thousands of lives and cost a young nation its innocence, an event that changed my life as it changed the course of my country and of the world. Although many in the aftermath seemed to have the taste of blood on their tongues, many others now have the taste of hope, a taste much sweeter. Instead of continuing on the course we have blindly followed before and since the attacks, I just hope we can take a moment on this most significant of days to stop and contemplate what exactly it means to be an American and what our place in the world should be. I hope that we will decide, unified once again, to embrace a vision of America as a key player in building a more peaceful and just world, one that we can all be proud of, particularly those whose lives were cut so tragically short in the attacks five years ago today.
Although I could never simplify matters so much as to say that we have nothing to fear but fear itself, I can say that fear and ignorance are our greatest enemies. Let us first take on these threats, with the same vigor that we took to Afghanistan or Iraq, and then we can decide what other enemies are left standing.