A 9/11 Memory: The World Turned Upside Down

Today is, as most Americans are well aware, the eighth anniversary of the plane attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

Surely we all remember where we were and what we were doing when we learned of the attacks.

By sheer luck, I was in a position on that day to actually see footage of the crashes replayed on television. Our family “unplugged” our TV years before. Juneau, Alaska at the time had the highest cable rates in the nation—higher even than nearby villages—and we decided that wasn’t right. We canceled the connection, even though we loved watching television, and at the time could hardly imagine life without it.

On September 11, 2001, I was in Dillingham, a village in the far west of Alaska, attending a quarterly meeting of the Alaska Commission on Aging. My habit, when traveling for work, was to keep the television on at all times, to get my “fix” of tube while I could. On that morning I flipped on a news channel and hopped in the shower. Coming out, I saw footage of the first tower falling. As soon as I could gather my wits, I called Michelle at home. I told her to prepare herself for a long, hard day at work as a para-educator at Aly’s elementary school, because something unthinkable had happened. Had I not called her, her first awareness of the day’s atrocities would have come from her coworkers.

After 9/11, people started saying that irony was dead, something I still don’t understand. Irony was alive and well when we arrived at the Dillingham airport. Hastily-erected barricades ringed the terminal: a cordon of police tape to thwart any truck bombers headed in to paralyze the transportation hub of southwest Alaska! All commercial flights had been grounded, of course. We would remain in Dillingham until the ban lifted a few days later. The people of Dillingham opened their hearts to us, and made us family during that time. I realized almost immediately that I could hardly be in a better place to face the uncertainties of that day and those that came after. These events barely touched the remote corner of Alaska in which I found myself. I could hardly be farther away from the attacks. In fact, if Michelle and Aly were with me, we could have happily ridden out whatever would come in that village, safe, snug, and out of the way.

Much later, I realized that I was not so remote after all. Homeland Security money began flowing across the nation, and communities around the country began using it in sensible—and nonsensical—ways. Quiet, level-headed Dillingham used their allotment to create a network of security cameras around town. They positioned one of these cameras to cover the entrance of the town’s mental health clinic!

Small town bush life is hard—very hard. Alaska is well known for its high suicide, alcohol, and abuse rates. Mental health services are vital to the survival of every community in the state. Counseling, however, carries the heavy stigma here as it does everywhere else. In fact, the smaller the town, the heavier the stigma. Imagine, then, the detriment to the town’s health and well-being caused by this “security” decision.

I have never understood our country’s response to the events of 9/11/01. We beat our chests and congratulated ourselves on our bravery, while hiding in fear from phantoms. Yes, the threat of terrorism is real. Yes, the events of that day were horrendous. Yes, those responsible should be brought to justice—ultimate justice, preferably. However, I fear that the ultimate goal of the terrorists—which is, not so much the killing of as many Americans as possible, but the disruption of our commerce, of our freedoms, of our daily lives—has been accomplished by our response to the attacks.

Far better if we had, as a nation, pointed out that these attacks would not, could not change us as a nation. Indeed, more Americans die each year on our highways, doing something we love to do, than were killed in the attacks. Those who planned these attacks should have been made to understand that they would, in our own time, be found and brought to justice, but they should also have been made to understand by our words and actions that their goal had failed.

Instead, we remove our shoes, surrender our belongings, and submit to myriad humiliations at the hands of poorly-trained TSA agents in a charade to make us feel safer. We fear speaking out, exercising our constitutional rights, for fear of reprisal. And, in a remote corner of Alaska, a state that seems unreal to most Americans, let alone Middle Easterners, people who need help are afraid to get it, for fear of embarrassment.

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