Days before the ten year anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks, I walked through airport security at Miami International.
Instinctively, I kicked off my strappy sandals. I furiously stuffed 6 ounce bottles of beauty lotions and potions into a bursting ziplock sandwich bag. A couple more seconds and I feared triggering a breakdown in the process that could cause everyone behind me to miss their flights.
“Bueno, she’s really hot!,” giggled an on duty TSA agent, who I quickly realized wasn’t referring to me, but to last night’s date, as he looked at his colleague and not the X-ray screen.
I could have smuggled a full bottle of hairspray.
Someone wanting to do harm could have passed explosives. This is how our minds jump in a post-9/11 world.
On September 11, 2001, after an all-nighter, I turned in my once-dinged Yale dissertation on a crystal clear blue sky day with no humidity–a New England treat wedged between sticky summer heat and bone-chilling winter.
As I collated a ream of paper near the department’s printer, I overheard someone say, but so incredulously, the statement turned into a question:
“A plane just crashed into the World Trade Center?”
I walked into the WTNH-TV newsroom–where I interned on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and weekends.
It was 8:45 AM.
Seconds later, like millions, I was watching live TV when I witnessed a jetliner fly–crash–into the second tower.
The sound switch in my head turned off.
I didn’t hear people start screaming:
Oh My God.
Oh My God.
I didn’t hear the choked sobs or phone buttons being banged as normally steady colleagues, consumed with terror, frantically dialed loved ones who might be trapped in the towers.
Like so many others, we worked non-stop for hours, trying to shine light into the darkness that had settled on what would be christened Ground Zero in lower Manhattan, the Pentagon, and a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania–burial grounds of fathers, moms, sisters, kids, students, colleagues, tourists who had done nothing more than board a plane to go home, to start a vacation, show up for work.
That day everything changed.
Even before we began to grasp the magnitude of this horror, a collective fear gripped Americans for one of the few times in our history. The most regular activities–going to the mall, boarding a train, attending a game–triggered mass anxiety. Like millions living in the world’s hotspots of Darfur, Mexican border towns, and communities in the Middle East, we collectively asked, “If I step out the door, will I come back home?”
Since September 11, 2001, paralysis has lifted. But we live suspended in a perpetual state of orange vigilance because like the morning of the terrorist attacks, we don’t know what’s next.
Our country invaded Iraq and is waging war there and in Afghanistan to eliminate extremism.
Bush-era unilateralism yielded to Obama multilateralism, with the Libya operation NATO-led, in large part because Americans, anxious about losing the little they have left in another recession, won’t support a third war.
Does our attained comfort with the treatment of military prisoners with ties to extremism, does keeping Americans safe–and there have been no other terrorist attacks on American soil–trump a fundamental of American law and morality–that all are innocent until proven guilty?
Does suspicion of those different from us in looks, religion, and mother tongue replace our distinctly American acceptance, generosity, and curiosity?
Combined with national security concerns, will this distrust, combined with a weak economy, permanently stall any opportunity to modernize our archaic immigration policy which is hindering our country’s competitiveness?
Billions of dollars and countless frustrated efforts later, Osama bin Laden was hunted down and killed not in Afghanistan but near military installations in neighboring Pakistan, recipient of billions in U.S. aid, just months before the ten year anniversary of the attacks which I blog about in “The Death of Osama bin Laden: a Reflection on 9/11.”
Exorcising from our collective consciousness the changes to our culture and society, may take a lifetime.
Click here to read “The Day Everything Changed” in the Huffington Post Latino Voices.