Reflections on September 11th at a time of great national division
Henry F. Fradella
Nineteen years ago today, I awoke in my home in Yardley, Pennsylvania and hurriedly got ready to head to work. It was a beautiful, crisp fall morning. During my short, 15-minute drive to The College of New Jersey (TCNJ)’s campus, I thought about the lesson I would teach that morning. When I got to campus, it was eerily quiet. I wondered why the footpaths weren’t filled with people scurrying to morning classes, getting coffee, or otherwise enjoying such a lovely morning. I entered the building in which I worked, traipsed up three flights of stairs, and then walked past a colleague’s office. I said, “Good morning, Linda!” And she looked at me and started to cry. At that point (just past 9:00 am), two different planes had crashed into the World Trade Center (WTC) towers. She and I attempted to comfort each other. Her son worked in that area of lower Manhattan, and my family had countless friends who worked in the WTC with my father.
I went to my class and all of my students were present. I turned on the television and we watched the news for a few minutes, then I turned it off and we talked about what we were witnessing. The room was filled with people who were worried about parents, aunts and uncles, siblings, and friends. After about 20 minutes, one of my students asked if we could try to conduct class as usual because she needed something productive to focus on. Nearly every student in the class nodded in agreement. I, too, felt that way. So, we moved on to whatever we were supposed to discuss that day. I couldn’t tell you what we talked about. I can’t even tell you if I taught my judicial process class or a criminal law class that morning. All I know is when class was over, I was exhausted.
Classes were officially canceled by midday. Students, faculty, and staff gathered in public areas to watch the news. I left campus and returned home. My boyfriend at the time (whose birthday is September 11th) and two dear friends joined me. We did our best to console each other. It helped us all not to be alone. We reached out to some friends in DC to make sure they were okay. We were relieved to learn they were. During one surreal moment that afternoon, I received a phone call from a representative of a pool company in Arizona telling me the “good news” that they had broken ground on my pool that day. It was as if people outside of NY and DC were living in a completely different reality that day. I knew at that moment that this event would have a unique and long-lasting impact on New Yorkers in ways that few others could understand. After all, we did not hear from my father all day. I knew he was supposed to be in midtown Manhattan on September 11th, so I assumed he was okay, but I wasn’t sure. And I was very worried about all the family friends I knew were in the WTC that fateful morning. Much later in the evening (after 8:00 pm), my father was finally able to make a phone call to let us know he was okay. The next morning, we learned of the ordeals he and hundreds of thousands of people endured to leave the island of Manhattan that day.
On the afternoon of September 12th, I attended a candlelight vigil at TCNJ. There were easily 1500 people — and perhaps even more than 2000 of the roughly 4000 campus community members — who gathered at that event. By then, I knew my dad was safe, but the same was not true for so many of my students. In the days that followed, we learned of so many people who had lost their lives. The never-ending stream of memorial services that followed in weeks thereafter took a toll on us all.
In the months and years that followed, we did our best to support friends who struggled with PTSD in wake of surviving 9/11, some of whom walked down 100 stories of smoke-filled staircases to escape the towers before they collapsed. And even many years later, we lost friends and family members to cancer that was attributed to exposure to carcinogenic substances that filled the air after the towers fell.
Nearly two decades later, I look back on 9/11 with a sense of awe of how people came together. I am not a G.W. Bush fan. I did not vote for him. But I was impressed at the empathy he displayed during those turbulent times. Even Rudy Giuliani managed to display a level of empathy that far too many politicians today could not come close to displaying. Most of all, I think of all the first responders who selflessly gave of themselves — some sacrificing their lives — to help others. Not race, ethnicity, sex, sexual orientation, nationality, religion, or any other demographic mattered that day. We were all in it together and all we cared about was helping each other through an unimaginably difficult time.
Of course, that unity was short-lived. Radical jihadism became inappropriately synonymous with being Muslim. As a result, Islamophobia became “normalized.” Nationalism grew to levels that eventually led to an “America First” mentality despite the globalized nature of modern society in which no single nation can go it alone. The moral panic attendant to terrorism gave birth to costly security measures — most of which were nothing more than crime control theater, and some of which have destroyed the privacy rights of law-abiding citizens in ways most people don’t even understand. And our respect for first-responders was so short-lived that it took a television personality (Jon Stewart) to shame Congress multiple times into providing health care to those suffering from the long-lasting effects of toxic exposure on 9/11.
I wish I had some conclusion that could impart wisdom, solace, or hope. But I am at a loss to do so. We’re living in an era of rising fascism, increased racism, and a false sense of nationalism that has alienated our allies and diminished our moral standing in the world. I’d like to be optimistic, but I fear that 9/11 was a turning point that may have actually contributed to the downfall of democracy in the United States —exactly as the planners of 9/11 wanted. We must do better.