“What was it like to hear the news about the airplane crashing into the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001?”
I opened my mouth to answer the question, and nothing came out. “Everybody knows that answer,” I thought.
Ashton did not.
A nearly full-grown guy of 16 years, Ashton is a nephew. He needed to interview someone about the events of what nearly all of us who were around and aware on that date call “Nine-Eleven” in recognition of the eerie similarity between the universal American emergency telephone number, 911, and that date on the calendar, 9/11/01.
I paused, blinked, and stared again at Ashton.
He is 16 years old.
Nine-Eleven happened 17 years ago.
He has no memory of the terrorist attacks that killed 3,000 of us, destroyed the twin towers of New York City’s World Trade Center, blew a huge gash into the Pentagon and, because of the life-sacrificing counterattack of passengers, plunged a fourth plane into a southern Pennsylvania field instead of into the Capitol or the White House, the presumed intended targets.
It seems odd to me, and unnecessarily wordy, to type that much background information into this story. The events of Nine-Eleven are seared into my memory. I just assume that they are also burned into the memories of all of you who read this column.
Ashton has memories of being told about the events of that day, or of having seen the loops of videotape and film that we saw, over and over, endlessly, on Sept. 11, 2001 and in the following days: One plane, captured on film by chance, smashing full-throttle into a Trade Center tower at 8:46 a.m.; another plane smashing into the second tower just 17 minutes later, at 9:03 a.m.
That’s when doubt became terror, and rage, impotent for the moment. This was not an accident. This was not an isolated act by a deranged or medically disabled pilot.
This was an act of war.
A half-hour later, that opinion became sealed in flame and burning flesh as a third plane slammed into the Pentagon at 9:37 a.m.
Not until well into the afternoon, perhaps into the evening hours, did it dawn on most of us that the almost unnoticed Associated Press brief item, something like “A plane reportedly crashed into a field in southwestern Pennsylvania,” was in fact a fourth part of that act of war.
Ashton’s interview question came about as part of his history class.
Aren’t the events of Nine-Eleven the stuff of current events classes?
No. Time marches on.
We have been at war ever since, primarily in Afghanistan, also in Iraq, because Osama bin Laden, Mullah Omar, Mohammad Atta and other Islamic fanatics attacked us just as surely as we had been attacked by Japan at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on Dec. 7, 1941. To date, we have lost another 2,300 American lives — and our justified rage has led to just under 150,000 deaths among the people who live in and around Afghanistan.
Ashton was one year old on Nine-Eleven. He was born on March 9, 2001.
That gives him a historical reference to Nine-Eleven that is nearly parallel to my historical recollections of World War II. I was born on Dec. 7, but in 1942.
I have a first-hand memory watching the black-and-white flickers in a movie theater of a Movietone newsreel, accompanied by the joyous shouting of the announcer, explaining the end of that war, either in Europe (May) or in Japan (September). I also recall snippets: ration coupons, Dad coming home in early 1946 at the train station in Warren, eating Spam, things like that.
My in-person knowledge of World War II is on a par with Ashton’s knowledge of the events of Nine-Eleven.
Those of us older than about 20 have the Sept. 11, 2001, events seared into our memories, largely from the seemingly endless loops of videotape and film showing the planes crashing into the World Trade Center, the men in suits, neckties pulled upward by the wind, jumping to their deaths from upper floors, and the smoke-and-debris of the collapse of the towers, plus video images of the gashed Pentagon and the eerie nothingness of that hole in the ground near Shanksville.
Those of us younger than about 20?
It is history to them.
I answered Ashton’s questions, surprising him a bit when he asked, “What did you do right after you heard?”
My answer was, “Get to work.” I had been at the newspaper office. In those days, we printed at about 11 a.m. We had to tear up the front page, repeatedly, as pieces of the story became known. I really didn’t have time to react to the horror of those men, women and children on the planes and in the buildings being knowingly sent to their deaths until later in the day.
The terrorists aimed to strike terror into our hearts. They succeeded, briefly, because no sane person could escape recoiling at what they did.
But in 2017, we can see that they failed.
Ashton ratified that.
“Are you afraid of them?” I asked him.
“No,” he said, without hesitation.
They hurt us. They killed us. They made us suffer.
We took our revenge, powerfully so.
And we continue as Americans.
[Denny Bonavita is a former editor at newspapers in DuBois and Warren, and former publisher of The Leader-Vindicator. He lives near Brookville. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org]