September 11, 2001 began as a normal day; Americans hurried through their routines, heading to school or work. There was little evidence that the events that would transpire over the next few hours would dramatically alter the political consciousness of the nation. And yet, the personal experiences of that day powerfully redefined the identities of countless Americans, driving many, like me, down new and unforeseen paths. For those in my generation, who were in the midst of their most formative years, it became a day that symbolized our maturation, when we could no longer view the world through the rosy lenses of youth. Each one of our stories reveals a little about both the narrator’s later evolution and the direction the United States took over the past ten years.
Early that morning, ghastly rumors had begun circulating the halls of my school. Something horrible had happened in New York City, a short drive from the middle-class suburb where I grew up. The details were murky; a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. But as the news became refined—it was not a small private jet, but actually two aircraft—the level of anxiety rose precariously.
There was growing trepidation as the rumor mill began churning—Los Angeles was burning; there were hijacked planes circling over all major cities; ten, no fifteen, planes had already crashed. There were crying students in the hallways, unable to get in touch with loved ones, and the guidance office was quickly overflowing.
My English teacher read a prepared statement that raised more questions than provided answers. I remember sitting in that classroom, the teacher speechless, unable to offer the distressed seventeen year olds anything more than the written words in her hands, when the phone rang. It was one of those standard wall phones, common in American classrooms, that provided a direct link between the office and classroom. My heart sank when the phone rang—I knew the call was for me—and then again when the teacher called out my name.
Bleak thoughts flashed through my mind. Like many who lived in New Jersey and worked downtown, my father’s morning commute consisted of taking the PATH train from Hoboken, New Jersey to its final stop at the World Trade Center. His normal routine brought him to the city around nine o’clock—precisely when both planes had hurtled into the towers.
The walk to the front of the classroom was the longest of my life. My teacher had a pained but unknowing look plastered across her face—the office had obviously not told her anything. I took the phone with trembling hands and stepped aside to hear the news.
My father had been in the World Trade Center when the first plane hit. He fortunately had time to escape before they collapsed, making his way downtown to his office. I remember seeing him later that day still partially covered with the ashes from the building, his normally black suit grayed by the flecks of dust that had rained on him as he evacuated the building. He was smiling, but I could see he was still shaken. The stories of what he had seen and experienced are still burned in my mind today.
That day was the birth of my political consciousness. Thereafter, my television was persistently tuned to the news. I was stunned by the horror of the attacks, by the hatred that would drive individuals to commit such atrocities. I was moved by my proximity to and my intimacy with the violence. As a young student on the cusp of college, I tracked the developments with alacrity. The scope of the tragedy and the subsequent fallout sharpened my desire to learn, to understand, and to solve the political issues that faced our nation.
My experience was not unique. For many Americans, particularly of my generation, September 11th is the genesis of their political awareness. The attacks have had powerful ramifications on their personal psyches. It has changed how they view the world, their personal lives, and their attitudes towards others. But September 11th has also shaped domestic and international arenas in profound ways; altering policies, generating new ideologies, and changing the direction and constitution of the global community. September 11th represents a historic break for individual Americans and the nation. And while the country and the world have experienced much over the past ten years, it is only the beginning. September 11th has put America on a new path; where it takes us has yet to be determined.