It’s been 16 years since 19 hijackers turned four commercial airliners into ballistic missiles, busted a hole into the side of the Pentagon and toppled the Twin Towers in New York City. That means it’s also been 16 years since I was a junior at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey.
Just 35 miles south of the World Trade Center, the sky above us went quiet. You don’t really think about the omnipresence of airplanes and helicopters overhead, especially somewhere as densely populated as the Northeast Corridor. But when the FAA grounded all non-military vehicles, the silence above was indescribably eerie.
The sun sparkled through the perfect blue. Miles below, our classes were cancelled as friends scrambled to determine the whereabouts of parents, cousins, siblings and high school pals. The greater New York/New Jersey area was a tangle of overtaxed cell towers and maxed out service grids. Facebook and Twitter hadn’t been invented yet. My Space was the only social network out there and people mostly used it to promote their crummy bands.
It took hours, sometimes days, for people to establish contact, or to realize that the worst of their fears had come true. Our campus was practically in the shadow of Ground Zero. It was inevitable that among the 3000 lives lost, our student body would be effected.
City of Ruins
The details of my college experience are getting a little hazier these days. Courses blend together. The names and faces of lapsed friendships become a little harder to recall. Even the way I felt or thought of certain things, those sensations are becoming less tangible all the time. You can’t recapture the feeling of being 20.
But I remember the feeling that day, the feeling that we were under attack, that our illusion of American insulation had been shattered, that this was a dividing line in history. I remember snoozing through my alarm, waking up in a cold sweat and late for work, finding my roommates gathered around the television, all of us still under the blissful assumption that a single plane had collided with the World Trade Center entirely by horrible accident.
Then we watched live as the second plane arrived. Immediately, the idea that this had been an accident disappeared in a plume of unfathomable malice. I remember driving the ten miles to my part-time job doing data entry for a family doctor. We had the TV on in the waiting room. Patients, doctors and receptionists were gathered around. We watched live as the first tower fell without fully comprehending exactly what had happened. There was no frame of reference. But our broadcast was actually being transmitted directly from the radio tower at the top of the World Trade Center. Suddenly, we lost our network television feed.
We flipped the channel until we found Telemundo. You didn’t need to be fluent in Spanish to understand what happened next. The second tower fell.
Everything that followed, from America’s invasion of Afghanistan, to George W. Bush’s reelection, to the deposing and hanging of Saddam Hussein, began on that day. And it would come to define my college years.
We cried together on 9/11. We protested the wars that inevitably followed. We wrote, and sang, and campaigned together. We crashed the 2004 DNC, shook hands with Madeline Albright, and bore witness as a charismatic unknown named Barrack Obama took Boston by storm. We inserted ourselves into those moments in history in a way that only your college years really make possible.
Some day soon, the responsibilities of career, family, and future will all find their way into your life, and hopefully not in a way that makes it impossible for you to experience events in the world around you. But in truth, college is a unique time where you have the luxury and privilege of immersing yourself in the events that make the moment. Besides, it’s your future. Nobody is more qualified to protect it than you.
9/11 was nightmarish and heartbreaking, but it was the catalyzing event of my college years, the event around which my generation came of age, the dividing line between before and after, both in history and in our collective conscience.
So if you are in college right now, this is your moment in history. Donald Trump, Charlottesville, Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, global climate change, the simmering racial tensions in our city streets, the innovations, wars, and epidemics of the present day, these are the things that give subtext and purpose to your college experience.
Take it from a guy who can’t believe 9/11 was 16 years ago. If you make an effort to live in the present, history will one day become a part of you.