Sunday, September 11, 2011


I was living in Los Angeles when the 9/11 attacks happened. They happened early in the morning on West Coast time, and because I was still doing swing shift at the newspaper I was still in bed when my roommate Josh came in to tell us what had happened. The planes hit the building well before 7 a.m. our time, and by the time I had heard about the attacks both of the towers already had collapsed. Most of the traumatic footage of the initial attack and then subsequent collapse of the buildings, I didn't witness it in real time. Many of us out west didn't, so a lot of us have a more compressed view of the events in the sense that the attacks and collapse happened all at once for us.

That isn't to say we didn't feel it. The planes used in the attack had been headed for California and so we had some anxiety about whether we were next. In those early moments it's easy to jump to those conclusions while you're trying to make sense of it. We didn't find out until later that the reason for this was that the terrorists wanted maximum fuel in the tanks for their airborne bombs.

In times of crisis, journalists find comfort in the routines of the newsroom. I still believe this is the litmus test of whether you have the journalistic fire in your belly. When big news breaks - not just tragic news, but news that has big impact or will be widely followed - where do you want to be? We didn't have time to grieve that day; we had news to produce and put out. I went in early to help with the coverage, and my newspaper (the Los Angeles Daily News) put out a special section and then the regular edition. I was the layout person on sports that night. I remember thinking how trivial my section was; the news budget in progress before the attacks had the usual stuff: baseball notebooks, college football stories, a Lakers story, and so forth. I remember staring at the blank page in the newsroom and asking how sports mattered.

It would matter in a week or so when the games resumed, because sports is a ritual that helps us feel normal again. But on that day, I was disconnected. I desperately sought to do something important, so after I laid out and paginated our shortened 6-page section (full of perspectives and columns), I offered to pitch in on the news side. Thankfully someone took me up on it.

I remember going through the AP photo leaf desk and seeing some of the terrible images coming across the wire, some of them that had strong warnings about content from the photo bureau. I helped where I could; sifting through photos, updating newswire stories with the latest topped news, and so forth. It helped me stay numb, this journalistic routine. I didn't know how to process the events of the day, but I sure as hell knew how to be a journalist so I focused on things I knew, things I could control.

I think it took several weeks for 9/11 to really sink in for me. By then the special sections and daily "America Attacked" special pages were receding into the background. It's not like I didn't feel anything early on, but it was mostly limited to anger about the attacks and a sense of journalistic duty. America needed the news.

As time marched on I felt more guilty about the anger, or that it was all I felt early on. I felt like I was supposed to be better than that; bloodlust should not have been the only response to the events and we have to use our mind and emotions in full when things like this happen.

The events of 9/11 set off a chain reaction in me that led me to grad school, then teaching. The questions I asked that day about what mattered about sports led to to seek a life where I was doing more to make the world around me better. So while my first response was fear and anger, my next one was to make a better life for myself that could in turn help those around me. I'm a professor who is dedicated about his students and their intellectual and personal growth today because of 9/11; of that I have little doubt.

I think about where we are 10 years later and it feels like we have missed some opportunities. In our fear we gladly sacrificed freedoms for security, with very little noise made about things like the Patriot Act that invade our personal freedoms. Sure we have noise about the body scanners and pat-downs at the airport now, but I sympathize with the TSA folks that implemented them. We gave them a mandate to keep us safe, and bureaucracy rarely thinks about whether it's going too far. They don't market test a mandate first.

And then I think about things like the NYC mosque faux controversy. I understand the twinge of emotion that comes at the idea of it because I felt it myself, but then it passed for me. I realized I was blaming Islam, not the terrorists. I was doing the very thing the terrorists wanted me to do. That moment passed for me rather quickly, but I get dismayed that so many continue to spread fear about it, or pass laws that restrict building mosques in other parts of the country, or the ginned-up fear over Sharia Law becoming part of U.S. law.

The aftermath has come with a cost too in how we relate to one another in this society. I was raised in a conservative Christian environment but have found it hard to gel with my church brethren post-9/11. Too many Christian leaders, particularly of the Evangelical stripe, have endorsed some of our worst reactions to the attacks. Endless war, torture, racial profiling, and the like. Religion should shine the way for us, give us reason to hope and make sense of things. I see too many Christian leaders cashing in on fear and it sickens me, but it also sickens me to see folks I grew up knowing and respecting succumb to this fear themselves. I've lost the ability to know how to get along with these people.

I understand the strong emotions. I've felt them myself. But when I see some of the fearmongering in our everyday conversation and the way it affects policy, I can't help but think we're better than this.

And I wonder whether, despite the fact that we got Bin Laden, whether we've already lost this fight. The attacks that day were a starting point, an attempt to show the world that America would readily lose its principles to save them. We haven't always done so, but there are times I've been disappointed by our response. We sell democracy to the Middle East while limiting it here at home, and I'm baffled by the incongruence.

Most of what I'm thinking about today is in relation to my son. Ten years ago it was just me. Now I have a wife and a child. I wonder what kind of world I've brought my son into, and what kind of country I'm helping to pass on to him. He won't know a pre-9/11 world, and that's a shame. It will be harder for him to see what we've lost in our collective spirit as a result of the attacks than it will be for his father, who remembers days of no body scanners in airports and confusing terror alert colors.

So what am I doing to help him recreate that world? I want him to know there are just fights in this world, but that it doesn't excuse everything we do in the name of justice. I want him to know that people who do things in the name of their god don't always do it with that god's approval, nor does it mean we should demonize all followers of that faith. I want him to understand that sometimes people do terrible things, others do terrible things in retaliation - and that this cycle of violence is poison in a free society.

I want him to know there is more to life than fear, and that in fact fear is the type of beast that is never satisfied when you feed it. It's a natural response but it can't be a guiding light in times of distress. Fear breeds more fear, and we have to break out of it eventually if we want to be whole again. I look around and see beauty everywhere, good things worth fighting for if necessary. We can't let fear be a constant cloud over all those good things in life that are worth living for. After all what's the point of living if we can't focus on the good things about life once in a while?

I want him to know we don't have to become monsters to slay our own demons, and that sometimes the best response is to model restraint and liberty in the face of soul-crushing fear. I want him to know that American leaders don't do anything good or terrible in moments like these without consent of the governed, whether it be actual consent or by apathy. We have a part to play in what we become.

I want him to know we had real heroes step up that day, giving their life and long-term health to help people escape Ground Zero. I want him to learn to respect and thank first responders, police, firefighters who do those most thankless jobs but really model selfless care for others in times of crisis. I want him to learn how to see that in stark contrast to the selfishness that too often pervades our actions in society.

I want him to realize that the loudest voices are not always the most truthful voices, and that there's something to be said for quietly going about your life with integrity, compassion, and thoughtful purpose.

In other words I want him to see our triumphs and flaws, to see us as real people capable of great beauty and tragic mistakes when confronted by terror. It's important he see it all, realistically, so that he can help us grow from it.

You can't teach these things to a 1-month-old who has no concept of words like "terrorism" but I can model them in how he's raised. Little things about how he relates to us and to other people. Someday he'll learn about the big picture. In the meantime, teaching human kindness, forgiveness, tolerance, humility, and the basic value of human life all connect to that eventual lesson. They are the building blocks.

I don't expect all will be on board with all of these sentiments, but I have no control over that. Just like my days in the newsroom after the attacks, on this day I'm thinking of what we've become and making sure we pass on the good lessons we've learned without transmitting the scars.

Someday my son will ask about 9/11. I'm going to tell him it's a day when we were given a choice, a real choice, to grow and become better people. And I'm going to share how I and my fellow Americans tried to take up that challenge, even if we all made mistakes along the way. I think it's important to recognize both.

One person at a time, one life at a time. It's about the only thing that feels right today.


Post #88 in my 90-in-90 blog challenge. Blog with us and join the fun. I'll be blogging both here and on myprofessional blog for the challenge. For more about the 90/90 challenge, read about my call for participants. The blogs participating are on the list at the right, or follow us on the #LUBlogTribe hashtag on Twitter


  1. These things you want Austin to realize are things he has to come to on his own. But if you are a loving parent, every day you're giving him the tools to learn and understand people and, most importantly, have compassion. He is growing up in a frightening world, but I think he'll be the start of a new generation who can change it for the better :)

  2. Amazing post. =) We truly need more parents like you in this world of volatile principles.