Like the Kennedy assassination, the bombing of Pearl Harbor or the murder of John Lennon, most of us remember where we were on September 11th with unrelenting detail.
For those who were in Lower Manhattan, as well as those who merely watched events unfold on television, the details of that morning are etched into their mind with remarkable clarity. Despite the kind of whitewashing that civilized society likes to impose on atrocities, no amount of censorship, restraint or distraction can erase the images and sensations we experienced that fateful morning.
The following day, however, carries significantly less clarity for most of us.
And yet, that’s when the permanence of the previous day’s tragic events really began to take hold. The morning after the towers fell, there was no escaping the fact that what we had witnessed was more than just a moment in time. It was a finality of sorts—something that robbed from us a sense of innocence. It wasn’t merely a story on the news, it was a loss that could never be recovered. A cost that would never stop taxing those who lived through it.
In the moment, as we watched skyscrapers collapse on the hurried masses below, we were mere voyeurs to unfolding historical events. We glued ourselves to the television, unwilling to admit that what we were seeing was possible. Even those who felt the earth shake as they ran from the debris had a sense that they were running beside history—not through it. We knew what was unfolding was historical, but we couldn’t convince ourselves it was real.
The grieving and mourning that followed, however, incited a sense of near helplessness as the events became more personal. There was no questioning the reality of the unconscionable. Spouses were waking up in bed alone, children woke up orphaned and countless individuals woke up not knowing if their loved ones had made it out alive.
Even those who had no direct connection to the thousands who had perished found a surreal sensation in knowing the atrocity was no longer playing out before us—it was already in the unchangeable past. The cruel indifference of time’s forward march mocked our suspended state of disbelief by relentlessly and indifferently hurtling us into an uninvited future.
How were we supposed to wake up, go to work, stop by the grocery store and move on with our lives after watching men and women throw themselves from the 84th floor of the North Tower?
At first, we responded with unity.
It wasn’t a unity borne of shared goals, dissolved political differences or cultural cohesion. It was a unity borne of trauma. A kind of unity that, at least temporarily, encouraged us to seek solace in the arms of those who shared our wounds. It was humanity reckoning with the relentless truth that, sometimes, humankind suffers well beyond anything our imaginations care to invent—and that the only assurance we can give each other is our shared condolences.
In the immediate aftermath, as we struggled to make sense of the randomness of tragedy, the mayor of New York became “America’s Mayor.” In the days and weeks following 9/11, we embraced our neighbors, called old friends and swelled with pride as a flag was hoisted among the skeletal remains of the Twin Towers. George Bush threw what was likely one of the most emotionally important first pitches in baseball history, and audience members forgot for a moment about their partisan preferences.
We waved American flags and embraced each other for having endured a tragic moment—eager to secure ourselves from the emotional trauma of what we had just witnessed.
That longing for security from tragedy, however, quickly transformed our world. Our unity gave way to fear—and division. Soon the wiretaps, the airport security, the “enhanced interrogations” and a never-ending war in some distant corner of the world became realities of our new millennium. Political debates raged and our unity turned once again into partisan division—patriotism itself even being employed as a grift on both sides of the political aisle.
We became different people in the days after September 11th—culturally, politically and individually. The events of that morning had changed our world in ways that were hard to quantify. Our relationship with government changed, as did our relationships with each other. And while we resolved to hold our loved ones closer, we also turned skeptical and even contemptuous of each other over time—our political divisions becoming apparent as we navigated new cultural waters. It wasn’t too long before those American flags and warm embraces were replaced with campaign signs and our usual partisan wedges.
However, for at least for a moment, we had shared a collective experience of the human condition and embraced each other to soothe our grief—and it began the day after we clung to our families and huddled around the television in disbelief.
Like many people, I don’t remember much about the day after the towers fell. I remember the sky along the front range of the Colorado Rockies was eerily still—seemingly two dimensional without the white cloudy streaks of commercial airliners. Occasionally the static blue of the heavens was interrupted by a jet racing to or from the air force base in Colorado Springs.
For others, the day was marked with uncertainty about the fate of their loved ones. For rescuers, the day was spent digging for bodies amidst the rubble of what was once lower Manhattan’s most recognizable landmark. For others still, it was a day spent with their lungs full of dust and their eyes blinded by debris as they prayed for someone to find them underneath a mountain of concrete, glass and steel. It was a day when many families learned that their loved ones weren’t ever coming home, and the rest of us pledged to grieve with them.
The day after the towers fell was when we knew our world had changed. Importantly, it was a day that, even though we might not specifically remember, we must promise to never forget.
Michael Schaus began his professional career in the financial sector, where he became deeply interested in economic theory and the concept of free markets. Over a decade ago, that interest led him to a career in policy and public commentary—working as a columnist, a political humorist and a radio talk show host. Today, Michael is director of communications for the Nevada Policy Research Institute and lives with his wife and daughter in Las Vegas. Follow him on Twitter at @schausmichael.