It started like any other Tuesday, which at the time meant I was running late to class and driving around a Central Austin neighborhood looking for a parking spot. And as usual, I was listening to the radio and tuned in to 93.7 FM, a longtime rock ‘n’ roll station in our state’s capital.
What struck me as unusual was the voice of iconic newscaster Peter Jennings emanating from the speakers in my hand-me-down Ford Thunderbird. I thought to myself, “Why is he talking on KLBJ?”
So I pulled over and started listening more closely. Jennings reported that an airplane had crashed into one of the World Trade Center towers in New York City, which was immediately startling. I had visited the Twin Towers as a child more than a decade earlier, as an 8-year-old, and remembered sitting on the top floor of the south tower, pressing my head against a window and looking down.
I saw cars on the Manhattan street below that looked like tiny specks of color, with a few clouds in between. The sight was surreal.
Back to the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, perhaps even more surreal was hearing Jennings say a few minutes later that a second plane had crashed into the other tower. There’s no way it could have been an accident or coincidence, I thought.
I ended up parking and walking across the University of Texas campus to my geology class, no longer in much of a hurry considering what I had just heard. The professor didn’t seem to mind that I straggled in late, and he told the class he was aware of what was going on elsewhere in the United States, but he was going to conduct class anyway.
But that was the extent of my schoolwork for the day. UT scrapped subsequent classes campus-wide, and I spent the rest of the day at some friends’ apartment, glued to the television like many Americans were on that unforgettable Tuesday.
Instead of learning about rock formations and the tenets of journalism, I learned about the Al-Qaeda terrorist group and a Saudi Arabian man named Osama bin Laden. I also learned the attacks on America were not limited to New York, with another hijacked plane having been flown into the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. and a fourth having crashed in a field in rural Pennsylvania.
Above all else, I learned the majestic Twin Towers were not indestructible, and neither was the great nation I’ve always called home.
Two decades later, it’s hard for me to articulate my thoughts about what happened during the days, months and years that followed the unprecedented attacks on the U.S. Aside from having to take my shoes off before boarding planes after that point, I feel fortunate to say my life didn’t change much and I wasn’t directly impacted.
I did not know any victims of the terrorist attacks or any first responders who were involved. The few friends I had who served in the subsequent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq made it back safely and did not say much about their time overseas.
That’s not to say I didn’t pay attention to the military conflicts and have opinions about how they played out. The same goes for the cultural shift here in the U.S., with a surge in patriotism and more of a watchful eye about who might be considered a threat or an enemy.
The latter feeling was both new and uncomfortable for this American, having previously considered my home country to be a safe haven that was beloved by the rest of the world.
But it prompted me to want to learn more about our place on the planet, other cultures and how we get along on a global stage.
The terrorist attacks from 20 years ago proved much more pivotal for many other Americans, and not just those who lost their lives or those of loved ones on that day. Too many more lives were lost in the subsequent wars in the Middle East.
Like me, Oak Forest area financial advisor Jonathan Kolmetz was a college student preparing for class when he heard the news on Sept. 11, 2001. But unlike me, he had already enlisted in the Army Reserves, and it would be only a few years before he found himself serving our country in Iraq.
Now, in 2021, Kolmetz said it all remains a “complicated story.”
“That day changed a lot of people’s lives here in the U.S. and overseas,” Kolmetz told me earlier this week. “I think with the recent events in Afghanistan (the U.S. withdrawing its military presence and the Taliban taking over), they’ve broken up old scabs and allowed a lot of emotions to flow. I think it’s caused some to think about, ‘Was it really worth it, and what might we do differently in the future?’
“Part of what we should spend some time on as we reflect on the lives that were lost on 9/11 and those who so admirably served there, they’re still recovering. And those first responders also lost their lives.”
The 20th anniversary of the terrorist attacks should be a somber occasion for most Americans, and we should reflect on the lives lost and sacrifices made since.
We also should be grateful for what we still have, individually and as a country.
And like Kolmetz said, we should think about how to best operate moving forward in a world that has drastically changed in the last 20 years.
It was therapeutic for me to visit the 9/11 Memorial & Museum during a work trip to New York in 2017.
There are now huge pools of water where the two towers once stood, surrounded by the names of those who died in the attacks, along with a new singular tower that stretched into the clouds on the morning I visited.
I encourage all Americans and even those abroad to visit the site and reflect on what happened and why, and how we can avoid a similar catastrophe in the future.
In the meantime, be safe and be kind to each other.