One nation, indivisible

I won’t get political on my blog often; only when the occasion calls for it. I believe this is one such occasion.

My brother's birthday is on September 8th, and in 2001, when I was sixteen, my mother decided to celebrate by taking the family to Disney World. I honestly can't remember all we did the 8th-10th. I know I rode Space Mountain, that we went to the castle, and rode around in Epcot. I know we had fun.

We were supposed to fly out on September 11, after spending the last day in the Animal Kingdom. While dining in the Rainforest Café, our server stopped by the table and told us planes had crashed into the White House and the Empire State Building. We finished breakfast, unsure whether or not to believe him, and left feeling what he said was impossible, and likely a very unfunny joke.

Once outside, my mother whipped out her cell phone and called my grandparents. They confirmed planes had struck the World Trade Centers and the Pentagon, and America was under attack. We panicked. We were supposed to fly out that day. We immediately rushed back to the hotel, and since it was so early and only a handful of the guests knew what had happened, we were extremely fortunate in securing the last rental car via the receptionist at the hotel.

The taxi ride to the airport was excruciating. We sat dumbfounded for a little over an hour, listening to coverage of something we couldn't comprehend. When we got to the airport, it was on the television, but we couldn't stop to watch. We were getting out of town, out of Florida, and back home as soon as possible.

We drove forever. On the radio, we heard that Disney World had been closed, as officials feared it might be a terror-target. We listened to coverage for hours. I remember feeling numb, detached, on the verge of tears every second, quite sure that life would never be the same. Obviously, as we live in Missouri, we couldn't drive straight home. I think we stopped in Alabama. Then, for the first time, after listening to the ghastly details all day, we saw what radio correspondents were talking about.

To this day, I have never been able to accurately describe how strange that was. Hours upon hours of listening to people describe something one can’t grasp, and then seeing it clear as day. I know the Ground Zero footage was surreal for the global community, but I’ve always mentally likened it to being told extraterrestrials have landed, and then seeing a spacecraft firsthand. Something completely out of this world, beyond understanding or any semblance of reality.

I don't really remember the second day of driving as well as I do the first, only that I was tired and wanted to get home. I wanted to phone my friend, Matt, as his cynical little-bothers-me view on the world was exactly what I needed to feel normal. He didn't disappoint, and while I felt anything but normal, it was good to hear his voice. The next day at school, I talked with my friend Nikki London, who explained how she and those at school had learned what had happened. Had I been home, I would have learned alongside Nikki in orchestra class. A student who normally skipped orchestra came in and told the class planes had hit the Towers. The instructor had assumed the student was joking as a means of explaining his tardiness, and they went on with class. Finally, the instructor caved after the kid wouldn't relent, and when they saw it was true, class halted. I'm guessing everything halted. I can't imagine being at school and hearing that news.

Granted, up until it happened, I couldn't imagine being in Disney World, either.

Everyone remembers the days that followed. The sense of patriotism and courage, and the determination to strike back at the entity that had torn us apart. Even though I wasn’t one of Bush’s fans—being all of sixteen at the time—I remember feeling, for the first time, fully behind my president. I remember feeling proud when I saw him at Ground Zero, and I remember the dead certainty with which I reflected the enemy’s demise.

After a while, the enemy had a name. Osama bin Laden.

Nothing happened the way we thought. The patriotism that united us in the days following 9/11 was short-lived, and 9/11 itself became a political tool, something about which I am still bitter. After a while, I, like so many, consigned myself to the reality that bin Laden had more friends than we did, and “smoking him out” was a task easier said than done.

Last night, nearly ten years after my first and only trip to Disney World, a good friend sent me a late night text message. “Osama bin Laden is dead, body in US custody.” My initial response was shock, and I expect that sentiment carries across the world. Aaron and I hurried downstairs to watch the presidential address, and even after a sleepless night, understanding what happened seems miles away.

Nikki London and I drive to work together every morning. She summed it up for me. Our generation was shaped by 9/11. It was our moment of reckoning. We were in high school when the Towers went down, and our adolescence and maturation into adulthood was molded and influenced by living in a post-9/11 world. A part of me remains conflicted over the rest, which yearns to celebrate a man’s death. The pundits last night toted this as Obama’s crowning achievement. I don’t know why, but it seems odd to regard the president’s largest achievement as getting a man killed. It also feels strange feeling glad a man is dead, but I won’t apologize.

Whatever else, last night marked a milestone in a war that defined my upbringing and reminded me, despite my country’s flaws (and they are aplenty), how proud I am to be an American.

The war on terror is far from over. I doubt it will ever be over. Still, the part of me that remains that timid sixteen year old feels at peace, and I hope the sentiment lasts a long, long time.