In that bright September sun

By Daniel Stratford

The morning of Sept. 11, 2001, was extraordinarily ordinary.

Like so many of my classmates, I walked with a youthful bounce in my step, anxious to begin that bold new adventure of middle school. It was a warm, breezy morning, with the enlivening rays of the sun gracing the presence of the green-leaved trees and tranquil streets of my hometown of Bethpage on Long Island, approximately 23 miles from the border of Queens, and thus, New York City.

Life could not have been better for me – I had moved on from what I considered then to be the provincial backwardness of elementary school and was in the process of befriending enlightened and interesting people. Politically speaking, the attitude of most Americans was not much different, for as Long Island basked in the morning sun, the United States basked in the glory of a prosperous domestic economy and a perception of unequivocal hegemony abroad.

This intractable optimism, not entirely unfounded at the time, was not even dented by the political trauma of the Election of 2000. We were all taught about the allegedly indefatigable nature of American greatness from an early age. If one wanted a monument to American greatness, all one would need to do is look around.

The U.S., after nearly two centuries of revolution, war, industrialization and tenuous expansion, had finally become a colossus astride the world. The finality of American supremacy seemed to be appointed by God himself, or so our unlearned 11-year-old minds reasoned. What we did not reason, however, is how swiftly things could change.

On the walk home, I was approached by a friend and his compatriot, who made what I considered to be some kind of flippant remark about some type of attack upon the World Trade Center – a location that I had visited not seven months before.

He remarked that at least a couple of the branches of the military were somehow involved in an abstract way. In a sarcastic tone, I inquired as to whether the U.S. Coast Guard was present as well. I thought nothing of it – these two were known to many as nascent comics.

When I arrived home, however, I learned from my mother that the events of the day were far closer to their account than I could ever imagine. Our television screen was replete with images of one of the towers of the World Trade Center engulfed by a hellish fire. Unbeknownst to me at the time, they, as well as one section of the Pentagon, had been attacked at the same time school had started that morning.

As cliché as it is to proclaim how “the world has changed forever,” in the case of Sept. 11, it did very quickly in my tiny sliver of the New York metropolitan area.

In the following days, gigantic airliners flying into JFK and LaGuardia airports, so long a fixture of Nassau County’s airspace, were replaced by fighters from the New York Air National Guard after the halting of civilian air traffic.

Sirens screeched around the clock as my town’s fire department lent equipment and personnel to the containment and recovery effort at the WTC. One of those firefighters, as well as the father of a pair of girls I knew from school, were later to join the multitude of those unduly struck from the earth.

Needless to say, a moment of silence and many more of discussion and contemplation were devoted in school to the events of the day prior on Sept. 12.

There were many questions to be asked: Who was this mysterious Osama bin Laden figure? What was al-Qaeda? Where was Afghanistan? What was anthrax? There were many things shattered on Sept. 11, ranging from our collective childhood to the aura of American invincibility.

Every nascent generation has some impetus for it to become involved in, or at least aware of, the goings-on in the world. Sept. 11 was very much the manifestation of that phenomenon, but, remarkably, it was also the impetus for a radical change in how the world functioned. We as a class, a school, a town and a generation were getting a crash course in the workings of the world, but also the sometimes brutal nature of its vicissitudes and the more-often-than-not streak of irrationality that seemed to pervade the minds of many of its leaders. In a very disturbing and arbitrary way, we were gaining insight into the nature of man itself.

Despite the unity inspired by the tumult of 9/11, there was no great home-front mobilization on the scale of World War II, which is what many of us were hoping for. What Sept. 11 heralded instead was the dawn of a new type of asymmetrical warfare that would not be aided by jingoistic slogans and ticker-tape parades.

In our minds, columns of olive drab-clad infantry were replaced by NYPD officers, special forces and CIA operatives as the mascots of American military might. Nor could the world be viewed any longer as a dichotomy of and battle between “good” and “evil,” a putative conflict into which we were carefully inculcated from birth.

However, the breakdown of our verdant conceptions of the world was liberating. We had traded blissful ignorance for a dour but honest reality and with it an appreciation for the variety intrinsic to human nature. Though we had witnessed in the attacks a most awful manifestation of evil, the donations of food and water, the volunteer hours at the newly-christened ground zero and the worldwide demonstration of solidarity with the United States had also revealed genuine goodness.

Much like a phoenix, out of the conflagration of the World Trade Center arose a tougher New York and a stronger youth, familiar with the archaic nature of the international order. The terrible manifestation of evil revealed a genuine kindness and afforded us a preview of the unfolding political reality of the 21st century.

Dan Stratford is a Collegian columnist. He can be reached at [email protected].