As members of the Times-Mirror prepared this week to remember and reflect on 9/11 during its 19th anniversary, it dawned on me our youngest reporter was just 4 years old on that fateful day in 2001.
For me, as someone who was sitting in a high school class when our principal came over the intercom to notify everyone that there had been an apparent attack on our nation in New York City -- and as someone who will never forget the hours that followed -- it's easy to overlook the fact there are now millions of young professionals who have vague memories, or no memories at all, of that day. Here's what our reporter John Battiston recalls about 9/11 and its impact on or society.
What is your most distinct memory of Sept. 11, 2001?
I was a few months shy of my fifth birthday on 9/11, so regardless of circumstance, my memory would probably be pretty foggy. That said, my mother evidently did an excellent job of shielding my twin sister, Sabrina, and me from the realities of that day, because I truly have no recollection of it at all. Sabrina claims to have a sharper memory of the event than I do, so my only "memory" of the attacks is stitched together from faded images of our little townhouse in Essex, Vermont, and my sister's and mom's accounts.
After news of the attacks broke, Sabrina and I were picked up from preschool. Once home, Mom took us straight to the basement so we could watch T.V. and work on some coloring pages. Afterward, my mom called my dad, who was studying at the University of Vermont at the time, and begged him to come home early from classes; she had never been more scared in her life. She must have been pretty strong for me and my sister, though, if I don't remember a thing about it — Mom has always known how to be strong for us in times of great distress.
According to my mother, so crushing was the shock of having lost nearly 3,000 Americans in such a short timeframe that the weeks and months after the tragedy were spent in almost a kind of stupor. She would go to the supermarket or drugstore, reach the checkout counter, and would exchange knowingly melancholy smiles with the cashier. My mom, perhaps the most congenial and extroverted lady I know, felt uncomfortable — even out of line — telling them to "Have a nice day." Something as simple as that fact communicates to me, as potently as just about anything, the weight of 9/11 for those who lived through and remember it.
Do you feel like you have a grasp of what a significant day in the course of history that was? I know there are accounts and a lot of references out there, but do you feel like the day itself -- the memory of it -- is as implanted in your memory as, say, someone my age, who was in high school when it happened?
The significance of Sept. 11, I believe, has not been lost on me — my lack of memory notwithstanding — mainly because the adults in my life never did me the disservice of sugarcoating what a senseless, abominable act the attacks were ... that is, once they felt I was old enough to fully grasp it.
Until then, again, my parents must have done an excellent job protecting me from the ugly realities of 9/11, because I don't remember learning the details of the event until the second or third grade, when the teacher of the gifted class at my Charlottesville elementary school gave us an educational printout on the subject. I don't remember the reactions of my other classmates, though I'm sure plenty of them furrowed their brows to communicate something along the lines of, "Teach me something I don't already know about."
Not me, though. I knew about death and I knew about war, but the idea that 3,000 individual human beings — six times as many as filled the halls of my school building — could be robbed of their lives at once when they didn't sign up for it? That their last moments weren't spent wearing camouflaged military duds and brandishing semi-automatic rifles, but rather wearing business-casual and clutching cell phones and briefcases? That bad guys weren't just real, but that they harbored such antipathy for my country that they were willing to eliminate so many innocent, defenseless people just trying to make their way in the world? These were new, worldview-altering ideas, and though they weren't impressed upon me until three or four years after the fact, I believe I was introduced to them at just the right time.
After that, I made a point to pay attention whenever the anniversary of the attacks rolled around, and while their harsh sting has never faded, for many years I remember a sense of pride swelling inside me when I would see people in school or on the streets or in the library wearing red, white and blue to show that no domestic attack could quell our sense of patriotism, or when news stations of all political bents — CNN, MSNBC, Fox News (the one that was on in my house most often) — took a moment to step back from debating whether President Bush was doing a good job, whether the War on Terror was justified, and acknowledge the loss and the deep scars that united all countrymen and countrywomen who had the misfortune to watch the Twin Towers fall. At the risk of sounding glib, to me, America felt more like America on the anniversary of 9/11 than on any other day of the year, even July 4, for it was on this day that "E Pluribus Unum" and "United We Stand" simply seemed to mean the most.
Do you have any direct or close connections to the attacks?
Much of my extended family is from New York, where my Aunt Janet lived at the time. If I remember correctly, a friend of hers worked in the World Trade Center and died in the attacks. Other than that, I'm one of the fortunate few Americans with more than a degree or two of separation from the many victims, at least as far as I know. With how many of my family members either live or have lived in New York, I'm sure there are more family friends or friends-of-friends that perished in the collapse of the Twin Towers. My dad, uncle and grandparents also lived in northern Virginia for a number of years, so I wouldn't discount the idea that they may have known someone who was working in the Pentagon when it was attacked. It's something I rarely bring up or ask about, though; I don't want my family to recall the pain of 9/11 unless they're the ones that broach the topic. It wouldn't surprise me if they sustained greater personal losses than I'm aware of and simply never mentioned it — if I were them, I probably wouldn't either. It can't be easy.
Speak generally on your reflections and understanding of 9/11.
Though I have no memory of the day itself, the pang I experience when I see Sept. 11 as today's date on my iPhone or laptop is very much there. Having spent the 15-or-so years since reading more and more about it, watching more and more footage from the streets of Manhattan surrounding what would soon become known as Ground Zero, seeing more and more big-screen depictions of the attacks and their aftermath, the harrowing and existentially grim reality of 9/11 has only become more and more clear and fleshed out for me. I'm typing from my third-story bedroom in Herndon right now, and every few minutes I can clearly hear a plane taking off from Dulles, which lies just across Route 28 — another discomfiting yet necessary (and oddly welcome) reminder that, exactly 19 years ago, dozens of Americans boarded what they thought would be routine flights, not knowing their feet would never again touch American soil, that the aircraft they passengered were to be repurposed as missiles, that the coming hours would essentially birth a new, far more fearful America.
But also, perhaps paradoxically, a more united one. Yes, I'm young, but much of my childhood was blessedly free of the full potency of the Internet and social media that we're experiencing today, wherein Americans with differing ideologies will find any reason to arm themselves with a keyboard and riddle their political opponents with projectiles of polarizing, my-way-or-the-highway vitriol. What I mean is, I remember what this country looked like before we learned how to reduce each other to a cluster of pixels undeserving of respect or dignity, before we forgot that, at the end of the day, most of us just want the best for the great country we call home. And like I said before, growing up, I rarely saw Americans set aside their differences more than on Sept. 11 of each year. This is a day to acknowledge that, almost two decades ago, on a beautiful, late-summer Tuesday morning, we were all dealt an immeasurable wound. We suffered together, we mourned and wept together, we prayed together, and we've continued to recover together. But nowadays, when a large-scale health crisis that should have been a uniting force has become just another political football for this country to juggle, "together" seems to have lost its meaning.
I urge people to honor the memory of those who lost their lives 19 years ago today by being the America they surely hoped for, one that embraces its diversity of thought, color and culture while still embodying "E Pluribus Unum." By all means, continue to acknowledge one another's differences — we wouldn't be a democracy if we didn't — but take some time to recognize that your neighbor, whether they're wearing a Make America Great Again hat or a Biden/Harris t-shirt, lived through the same horrific episode you did. And if you can, try to mentally place them and yourself on Sept. 11, 2001, and ask yourself: On this most cataclysmic, generation-defining day, would you continue to see them as your enemy, or would you cross the street, take their hand, and ask them what you can do to help them make it until tomorrow? I hope that you would — that you will — choose the latter.