“Turn on the TV NOW.”
This text from Lil’ Sis pulled me out of bed before midnight on Sunday.
Like millions around the world, I learned that Osama bin Laden, the diabolical mastermind behind the most deadly terrorist attacks on U.S. soil had been killed by Navy SEALs.
Even before President Obama’s soundbites would be repeated and dissected; before inconsistencies would be revised by the White House and the military; before news that a SEAL was an “Anchor Baby” would spread virally–without verification; before some would demand to see “proof” that bin Laden was indeed shot in the head; I immediately thought back to September 11, 2001.
I had pulled an all-nighter putting the finishing touches on my Yale dissertation which had been dinged once, resulting in one more year in New Haven. I rollerbladed to the department (my inline skates took me everywhere in graduate school–to teach class, to salsa dance, to grocery shop) on a crystal clear blue sky day with no humidity–a New England treat wedged between sticky summer heat and bone chilling winters.
It was just before 8AM. I collated a ream of paper with my advisor’s secretary when a stereotypically rumpled professor with wild eyebrows ran from down the hall into her office.
“A plane crashed into the World Trade Center!” he panted, nervously.
“Huh?,” we answered in unison.
“It must be a Cessna,” I thought. “I’ll find out when I get to the station.”
I was an intern on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and weekends at WTNH, the ABC affiliate in Connecticut. I knew I didn’t want to stay in academia. But I needed more on my resumé than “Viviana Hurtado–Professional Smarty Pants” which is why I interned at CNN en Español in Washington, DC and the New York Times in Mexico City–to balance out my fancy degrees with the “real world” experience my chosen profession valued.
“¡Vaya con Dios!,” I solemnly declared as I blessed the heavy, stuffed manilla envelope with the sign of the cross and handed it to the Fates.
With skates slung over my shoulder, I walked into the newsroom and was smacked in the face with chaos: one woman had her head between her knees gasping for air. Stone-faced co-workers at the news desk dispatched teams to what would be christened Ground Zero–a gaping hole of a cemetery in lower Manhattan.
I didn’t ask what happened and settled with others around a television set.
It was 8:45 AM.
Seconds later, like so many, 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 in the towers.
I saw my mentor beeline to the door. I ran after him–didn’t ask permission–and wedged myself between “sticks” as tripods are called by vets, battery packs, the camera, a cooler, sand bags, and HMI lights.
Like so many others, we worked our hearts away non-stop for hours, trying to shine light into the darkness that had settled as the Pentagon and a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania also became burial grounds of fathers, moms, sisters, kids, students, colleagues, tourists who had done nothing more than board a plane to go home, to attend a business meeting, to start a vacation. 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 Darfur, Mexican border towns, and communities in the Middle East to name a few of the world’s hotspots, we collectively asked, “If I step out the door, will I come back home?”
That day life changed: I never became a university professor, but a television and not a print or radio journalist (which probably made more sense given my analytical background). Why? Because I witnessed how our work to gather and disseminate the facts and provide context helped calm, even reassure so many who were paralyzed in a haze of confusion. Even though television news has largely continued its slide toward irrelevancy, in that moment, I was in awe of its power to do good, and wanted to work with the same integrity, conviction, and passion my colleagues exemplified.
Since September 11, 2001, our country invaded a country, is waging three wars while recovering from recession, with the one in Afghanistan partly fought to eliminate extremism by hunting down Osama bin Laden there. Instead, he was found in neighboring Pakistan, recipient of billions in U.S. aid near military installations.
Our country is engaging a debate about torture and the treatment of military prisoners with ties to extremism.
We live suspended in a perpetual state of orange vigilance, where traveling through airports in Juicy Couture sweats and flip flops is not just a fashion statement, but a strategic choice since it could make going through the security line less of a hassle (unless you have “SSSS” for secondary security screening selection marked on your boarding pass. Then you’re on your own.).
Our already archaic immigration policy was banished further into the dark ages with visas backlogged and reform stalled.
It took billions of dollars, nearly ten years, and countless frustrated efforts to hunt down–and kill–bin Laden. Exorcising the changes to our culture and society he engendered from our collective consciousness may take a lifetime.