Watching 9/11 From Across the Country

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

A reader in California, Beth Anderson, was watching news coverage of the attacks on September 11, 2001, and thought of her father, who had died the previous week. She was glad he wasn’t there to see what was happening.

My Dad had been a pacifist. During the time of the Vietnam Nam war, my older brother was draft age. He didn’t believe in the war, he was a conscientious objector. He had received his draft notice. My Dad supported him in his beliefs. But, my Mom ... well, her father and both brothers had served during World War II; she had worked as a riveter making aircraft for the war effort. There was a tense rift in the family.  What I saw the morning of September 11, in a moment, brought all that back, and I immediately thought of all the drama, strife, turmoil and eventual loss that the unfolding events on TV would mean for countless American families.

Fifteen years later, I don’t think that much has been accomplished.  The whole world seems worse off than ever before. I didn’t ever agree with George W. Bush and I think darker and more effective manipulators at the time didn't serve any of us well, nor the world. I applaud the ongoing efforts of Barack Obama who has strenuously attempted to correct that wrong course, but it certainly has come to feel pretty hopeless.

I felt bad that early morning.  I feel even worse now.

This reader, from Pennsylvania, was in second grade at the time of the attacks, and confused about being dismissed from school and taken to church on a Tuesday morning:

When my father got home, he announced we were going to church, but never explained the reason why. When we arrived at church, no one went inside. Instead, the adults gathered around the flag pole that stood out front, and began to pray. I wondered why they were praying to a flag, why were we at church on a Tuesday, and why they were so solemn. The image of those adults circled around the flag will forever be in my memory.

As it turns out, September 11 ended up playing a large role in my life. I was always interested in geography, other cultures, and languages as a child. I grew up in the post-9/11 world, and I was constantly told that learning Arabic would guarantee you a job, so I signed up for Arabic 101 my freshman year at college. Along the way, I fell in love with the Middle East and was afforded the opportunity to live there in 2013, which cemented my interest and direction of study. I recently finished my master's in Islamic Studies, which on the surface seems an odd occupation for a man from Amish Country, Pennsylvania.

This reader, who was 12 on 9/11, cites the attacks’ “profound effect on my outlook on life”:

For the longest time, I couldn't wrap my head around it. I couldn't swallow the fact that four 767s had been hijacked and nearly 3,000 people died. It wasn’t denial, but shock that it actually happened, that I suddenly lived in a world where people I’d never even met wished me and the rest of my country a grisly death.

It informed my childhood. I became intensely interested in politics. I came to adopt a strongly liberal political stance in reaction to the blunders, corporatism, and increasing xenophobia of the Republican party. Eventually, I became an atheist too, partly because I couldn't partake in an institution, Christian, Muslim, or otherwise, that advocated mass death and the repression of women, homosexuals, and other minorities.

For a long time, I was distrustful of Muslims, until I realized the majority of the Islamic world despises extremists as much as the Western world does. It led me to want to understand. That's been the driving force of 9/11 in my life. To understand why, and to communicate in such a way that the divides that caused this attack can, someday, be bridged.

Nobody deserved to die. But it wasn't a random, pointless act of mass slaughter. It had motivations rooted in decades of Western foreign policy and the rise of extremism in Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Central Asia. I just hope that someday, we can all put our guns down, step away from the bullhorns and microphones, and sit down and actually talk to each other.

Finally, the recollections of a reader from rural Pennsylvania, whose family was near where Flight 93 crashed:

I was living in Texas, at home for the day, because I was starting a new job the following day. It was a lazy morning and I was still in my pajamas when my ex-husband called. He’s laid-back to the point of dullness and he was as close to hysteria as I’ve ever heard him. I had trouble processing what he was saying: “America’s under attack,” “plane crash in Indian Lake,” “call your mom.”

He and I were from the same rural Pennsylvania county—Somerset—and I thought he was crazy. Who would attack a little borough near Shanksville? But I turned on the television with the phone pressed to my ear, trying to call home. As I watched the towers fall over and over on replay, I called again and again and couldn’t get through.

The next day I started my job, working with kids in a Gulf Coast chemical town that was also home to part of the US Strategic Oil Reserve. The roar of fighter jets—the only planes in the air—frightened the children. We did art projects and I encouraged them to talk about their feelings. It felt surreal; the threat where I was living, along with the reality that my family and friends had gone through so far away. And here we were, doing homework and planning Halloween parties.

I later learned what everyone now knows about Flight 93 and the attack on the Towers and Pentagon. Finally reconnected with my family; my mother said she had been tending my brother (who had a broken leg) when they heard a loud rumble on Route 30 outside. They assumed it was a particularly loud truck going by, never dreaming that five miles away, that low-flying plane would crash. The lights flickered at my aunt's house. The debris field was wide and ugly. Friends of mine who were first responders are particularly infuriated by those who doubt the crash.

I visited New York when the towers were still craters, and the Pennsylvania field when the memorial was no more than white crosses and benches. I live just a few miles from the Flight 93 memorial now, but I have a hard time visiting, though it is beautiful there. The pain of the families of those who were lost is beyond comprehension. No one should have to suffer this way. I won’t visit the memorial in 9/11. That’s really for the families. But I’ll fly my flag and remember.