Looking Back

I wrote this yesterday, but forgot to post it before heading out for an afternoon of kickball.


I believe M is coming home with an assignment tonight to ask S and I what our memories of September 11, 2001 are. Her social studies teacher wrote her memories of that day on her whiteboard and shared a pic of it on Twitter, along with the warning our kids would be asking questions tonight. So, in between my normal Monday errands and tracking the remnants of Irma – hoping my in-laws’ home in Jacksonville will be dry and damage-free when they return from their European trip in a week – I’ve been thinking back 16 years.

I think most of our initial memories are of when we first heard what was happening, where we were, who told us, etc. And then how we followed the events of the rest of that morning until we all settled into a daze after the second tower fell.

As I think more about that day, I get to the evening. And the part of the day I keep thinking “Somewhere in here are the seeds for a decent novel,” but have never tried to hash out.

My evening of 9/11/01 was different because I was with a group of people that kind of went off the rails a little. That week was my employer’s annual conference that brought people in from all over the country. A group of us who worked together, but were scattered from Texas to Oregon, had planned a dinner on Tuesday for weeks. Despite the day’s events, the out-of-towners insisted on keeping our dinner reservation. Probably so they didn’t have to sit in their hotel rooms and watch the footage over-and-over.

We went to Manny’s, the now defunct Kansas City Mexican food institution. As I recall we all pounced on the pitchers of margaritas as soon as they hit our table. I’m pretty sure everyone was pretty well lit before we ordered our food. And we continued to hit the tequila hard. While the rest of the restaurant, which was serving a rather light crowd, was reserved, quiet, and somber, we were loud and laughing and likely obnoxious. I don’t remember anyone saying a word about what happened on the east coast, but instead carrying on just like it was any other night.

I also remember the other diners giving us looks. Not angry looks, but more “Why are they so happy?” looks. After making eye contact with a few people who appeared to disapprove of our revelry, I stopped looking around. Even in that moment I had a feeling that when this dinner ended and I went home, nothing might ever be the same again. If the other dozen or so people I was sitting with were down for a night of ignoring the horrific attacks for a couple hours, I was gladly along for the ride.

Things did get a little dicey as we made our way out of the restaurant. We were splitting the ticket so had to do that up front near the bar. We were kind of loud – a couple people could barely stand at this point – and President Bush was about to speak. Several folks at the bar loudly told us to knock it off. Those of us who were in halfway decent shape tried to shuffle the more impaired members of our group out the door to avoid things getting really ugly.

And then the night was done and reality hit.

Somewhere in there is a book, I bet. Maybe someday I’ll be able to find the thread that leads out of that night into a bigger story.
***
Two years ago C came home with a 9/11 homework assignment that was several questions to ask parents about 9/11. One of the questions was “How do you think life has changed in the US since 9/11?” There was a broad, poli-sci answer I could have given which was probably too much for a third grader. The answer I did give was that I didn’t think life had changed all that much. Airport security is different. No one close to me has served overseas, so I haven’t had to live with the fear of a loved one serving in harm’s way. And even then, I feel like the War Against Terror has always been in a distinct pocket in our culture. We get constant reminders about the troops, but I don’t think America in the ‘00s and ‘10s feels like a country at war the way it did during previous wars.

My answer might change if that question comes home tonight, though. I think Trump is a direct effect of 9/11. No, I’m not saying he’s a sleeper agent for al qaeda. While fear has always been a part of American politics, I think 9/11 both institutionalized perpetual fear and broadened its effects across the country. People were fearful, and rightly so, of the next attack, of anthrax, of anything that seemed a little hinky for quite a while.

Eventually, we settled down. Well, most of us did. But that fear remained strong in a significant part of the electorate, and eventually attached itself to things that had nothing to do with Islamic terrorism. The raw hatred for Barack Obama grew from this fear. The rejection of modernism, of science, of the progression of civil rights all grew from this fear. The Tea Party movement solidified that fear, both against Obama and more broadly against the modern welfare state, and injected it directly into our political process.

The blueprint was in place: if you say the right words loud and long enough, even if they have no basis in fact, you can mobilize an extremely angry and motivated segment of the electorate. Trump was the perfect – and only – candidate to capitalize on this fear. An empty, soulless man interested only in himself, who was willing to say, do, and attach himself to anything that moved his brand forward. He came along at the exactly right time, and against the exact right set of opponents, to blow that fear up into something that carried him to the presidency.

Make no mistake, not everyone who voted for him did so because of the wave of fear he capitalized on. But in US presidential politics, where mobilizing a tiny swath of the electorate can tip a national election, those folks who had lived in fear since 9/11 were the difference in Trump winning the White House.