The Day That Changed Us

Back in college I had to read this book for a class called, “Turning Points.” If you went to an evangelical school you might have had to read it to. While it’s a book about church history the central idea of the text is that the author looks at the history of the Christian church and points to specific moments in history that altered the course of church history.

I really connected to that concept. And if you’ve heard me speak or read what I’ve written over the last decade or so you might recognize that I use this concept at times because I find it to be a helpful way to look at the large arc of time.

September 11, 2001

There are three things I’ll never forget about 9/11.

  1. It was a beautiful, cloudless morning in Chicago. I got to the office that day about 4:00 AM. A couple hours later I took my normally scheduled lunch break. As I drove down Des Moines Avenue and went to the Dominick’s supermarket that morning, I parked my car, turned around 180 degrees and just stared at the Sears Tower. About a mile away, it stood there, the city was stirring, but the silence had lingered. Beautiful, warm, perfect day.
  2. We all made decisions. A co-worker, Allen, returned early from lunch that day. He had been sitting at a local lunch counter, having breakfast and drinking coffee while watching Good Morning America when they started reporting that a plane had hit a building in New York. He came into our office telling everyone about it. We all blew him off. But he grabbed another co-workers portable TV and set it up in the office with the volume way too loud. And we all saw the second plane hit on live TV. We didn’t say anything but we all had the same idea. Let’s go home. Within a minute all of our cell phones started ringing. A couple minutes later I got a call from an automated system from our company telling us to prepare to evacuate the building, that they were considering sending home the entire staff of about 5,000 people. I looked at my team, there were about 6 of us, and I made a decision: “Look, we all need to get home. They are going to send us home but they haven’t told us when to release you to do that. And I’ve got a feeling the city is going to close the loop. No one sign out, just leave when you are ready. I’d suggest you go now.” No one ever asked when my team left. But we all left about 30 minutes before several million people in the loop were told to go home.
  3. It was a beautiful, silent evening in Chicago. After I left my office at Blue Cross I drove to Kristen’s office in Buck Town. On the way there I called my mom, waking her up in Vegas to the news. For the next several hours it was the only call I could make because the cell networks were overwhelmed. As Kristen and I drove home on the Eisenhower we had the sunroof open and the radio on. We couldn’t help but look at the sky. We couldn’t help but listen to the news. We drove back to Oak Park and tracked down Megan at her babysitters house, Aunt Mary, we called her. The rest of the day we watched the news in shock… not knowing what else to do. Word had spread that our church was going to hold a prayer gathering that night. I don’t remember going. Maybe we did and maybe we didn’t? But what I do remember was the silence of that evening. Normally, as evening quieted our neighborhood you would take notice of the air traffic over our head. Every minute or so you’d hear a jet in the distance making it’s decent to O’Hare. It was one of those things that you didn’t notice until it was gone. It was gone that night. I think we walked that night. Megan in the stroller and sidewalk beneath our feet. And I remember the silence. A city of 6 million people isn’t supposed to be silent, but that night it was silent in Chicago. Eerily, respectfully, silent.

It Changed Us

Like millions of others, that day 13 years ago is a vivid memory.

But, at the same time, we all have to look at that day as a turning point in our country. It’s easy to point to security at airports or the creation of the Department of Homeland Security as the output of 9/11.

But what I think happened was so much deeper than that. September 11th was the day fear became the most powerful force in America.

For the next several years, if the President said we needed to do something for national security, he could do whatever he liked as long as he said it was for security. Any mention of 9/11 became a selling point for a program.

That newfound fear began to rule our government. Instead of people being innocent until proven guilty by a court of law, people could be arrested for “security reasons” and the public assumed they were terrorists.

That’s not who were are. But that’s who we’ve become. 

And that fear-based rule making isn’t just about our military, it’s about everything. We make decisions about a lot of things, not by values but by fear. My kids will never have a locker at school, in part, because of the fear that was born on 9/11.

For some reason, “national security” lead to individuals buying handguns at an alarming pace. Before 9/11 Americans bought about 2 million guns per year. In 2012, we bought more than 8 million guns. You don’t buy a handgun to express your freedom to do so. You buy a handgun because you’re afraid of something and you think you might need to use it.

September 11th, 2001 changed our society. It unleashed in us something that I hope time heals: Fear. It’s something that seeps into every part of who we are.

And that fear– that turning point toward a society where fear is conquered by nationalistic excuses to become agents of terror ourselves, bombing countries and holding people in nameless prisons without trial– makes me sad. It might be who we are but it’s not who we aspire to be.

Remember Who We Were

Today, like every 9/11, there will be moments of silence and remembrances of those who gave their lives. It was and continues to be a tragedy.

I want to remember those people.

But I never want to forget who we were before that day.

I hope we heal enough to be that nation again.

Photo credit: September 11 Memorial by Jens Schott Knudsen via Flickr (Creative Commons)
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Categorized as Short Story

By Adam McLane

Kristen and Adam live in Ahwahnee, California.

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