I was 20 years old, a junior in college, that day. I stayed the night before at my then-boyfriend, now-husband’s house that he shared with 3 other guys. A roommate woke us early that morning, a strange, hurried tone in his voice.
“You guys. Planes… just hit… buildings… in New York. It’s on the TV,” I think that’s what he said. We stumbled out of bed and into the living room.
I watched the smoke billowing out of the side of the 2 towers. I watched as the first building started to collapse. I didn’t comprehend a single fucking thing I was seeing. I could not, simply. could. not. wrap my head around it. I didn’t cry. I was numb.
I went back to sleep.
I had a History Of American Journalism class that day. I skipped it because once I woke back up, about an hour later, I couldn’t unglue myself from the TV. And then I cried. I watched Ashleigh Banfield for hours on end. The vision of her short hair and angular glasses, her petite frame against a background of gnarled metal and falling ashes will forever be burned into my mind.
My professor docked my grade for my absence that day, and told us in the next class that those of us who skipped her History Of American Journalism class on 9/11 let the terrorists win. Huh. And here I was thinking I was, I don’t know, watching American journalists cover a pretty damn historic event.
I called my dad on 9/11 when I heard a rumor gas was going to go up to a shocking $3 a gallon. It was my personal mission to tell everyone I knew to go fill their tanks before it rose so high.
“Jill, gas prices are the least of our worries. The world as you know it just changed forever,” he said. Not in a condescending tone, but in a tone of concern; one that I can only now grasp as I imagine feeling such uncertainty while having children to think of.
And change, it has. It’s not just about the break in the New York skyline. It’s not about all the extra concrete barriers that make navigating streets near the Capitol a nightmare. It’s not about the inevitable clusterfuck that is now anything to do with air travel.
By the evening of 9/11 there were American flags everywhere I looked. They were hanging off of apartment balconies in our college town. They were flying from antennas of cars lined up in long gas lines… because I guess they heard that price-hike rumor, too. You couldn’t find one to buy anywhere.
But, KOMU news director Stacey Woelfel, at the NBC station I would work at the following year as a reporter, made headlines shortly after 9/11 when he banned all reporters and anchors from wearing red, white and blue ribbons and flag pins on air. Many people were appalled. If it was the age of social media back then, there would have been a Twitter shit storm and a Facebook petition with hundreds of thousands of signatures on it in a week.
Our news broadcasts are not the place for personal statements of support for any cause… no matter how deserving the cause seems to be… Our job is to deliver the news as free from outside influence as possible. – from a memo to KOMU staff by Woelfel days after 9/11
Drawing from what I had learned about the history of American journalism up to that point, I knew he was 100% right, and I fully supported him. I admired him. I was inspired to become a journalist and work at a station that takes a stand like that because journalism like that was going to change the world.
It turns out, though, that view didn’t seem to gain much popularity. Americans adopted attitudes that made them feel the need to call French Fries “Freedom” Fries, and anyone who didn’t want to bomb the shit out of a country that produced terrorists wasn’t patriotic enough. News outlets began fiercely embracing their “patriotism.” A few years out of college, and I couldn’t stand what most of journalism looked like.
The world would change that day in ways I couldn’t imagine. On September 11, 2001, I thought we’d be doing good in 10 years if we picked up the pieces, paid respect to the fallen, found Osama, and prevented anything of that magnitude from ever happening again. We’ve done all those things, but we’re far from healed.
I don’t know if it’s just because I’ve come into my own in this post-9/11 era, or if I didn’t pay enough attention as a teenager, but I don’t remember feeling so divided before that day. Sure, we all stood unified for a few weeks, but that didn’t last long. The last 10 years this country has filled itself with hatred, drawing lines around and between groups of people so thick we can’t even meet in the middle of them to pass a budget. Democrat, Republican, Liberal, Conservative- WE ARE ALL TO BLAME.
I saw this Ad Council spot on TV today. It’s similar to the original “I Am An American” PSA that aired 10 days after the attacks.
“Ten years later, we are still one.”
No, no we’re not.