I had just gotten home the previous night from a long road trip from Mexico to my home in Pennsylvania. I remember being mind-numbingly exhausted, but I had to get up and get going because I was working the second shift at the hospital that Tuesday. I turned on the television and went to make breakfast. I could hear the news was on and that something was going on of importance. A reporter on the phone started screaming. I walked out of the kitchen and into the living room to see the horror that had engulfed New York City. The second plane had just hit the south tower. About a half hour later, another plane hit the Pentagon. A half hour after that, the fourth plane crashed into a field not far from where I was sitting.
The television for the next few hours and then days was filled with images of nothing but chaos.
I went to work that afternoon knowing that the world had changed. It was a funny feeling, to be honest. I told the girl I was dating at the time that, for the first time in my life, I felt like someone was actually trying to kill me. To put that in context, I grew up on the border between Juarez and El Paso, a very violent place because of the drug trade and the inherent dangers of a large metropolis. I had gone to Baltimore and Washington, DC, numerous times and felt perfectly safe. But now… Now there was an international consortium of angry people who would not think twice about killing me if it met their ideological needs.
Things were calm at the hospital even with all the chaos about, even with a plane downed in a field 90 miles away and the Pentagon on fire 65 miles away. The news feed on the radio was playing, albeit at a very low volume, in the overhead system at the lab. People in the emergency department and in the coffee shop talked about what their sources were hearing. Others talked about grabbing their rescue gear and heading to DC only to be turned away and unable to get near the Pentagon. Some blamed “the muslims” for what happened. Others blamed American involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
What really stung was that a woman I worked with — someone I saw as a mother figure — walked up to me and asked me why foreigners hated Americans. I took it in stride. I wasn’t a US citizen then, though I had lived in the US more than half my life, graduating from high school and college here, loving all things American. She saw me as a foreigner with an accent and dark skin, like the men who at the time were believed to be the likeliest of suspects in the attacks. It was not time for me to argue with anyone.
Over the next few days, then weeks, things returned to normal around me. I went out on dates and the conversations in those dates went from the terrorist attacks to mundane things like what movies to go watch or school or other stuff. A few of my friends started to be deployed to different parts of the world as Afghanistan and then Iraq became targets of our retaliation. The rest is history… But it’s a history that we go back to and live again every year on this day. The world changed, and it didn’t change for the better.
My boss at the lab at the time had a chat with me a few months before the attacks. He told me that his generation had its watershed moment when Kennedy was assassinated. He said that his world changed. He went from being a kid in a small town in Maryland to being in the Navy, deployed to Vietnam and off the shore of Beirut after the Marine barracks attacks there. He said that my generation had not yet had its watershed moment. Little did I know that it was coming. Once it did, I knew exactly what it was.
I don’t know how much longer we as a nation will keep remembering the attacks and their victims, but there will come the time when we “move on,” so to speak. Like the Pearl Harbor attack and other man-made disasters, we will memorialize the fallen, and the whole thing will remain part of our history for a long time. But the time will come when we go on with our lives and go on to help the next generation live through its watershed moment… All the while working for peace.
Featured Image: “World Trade Center, New York City – aerial view (March 2001)” by Jeffmock – Own work. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons
René F. Najera, DrPH
I'm a Doctor of Public Health, having studied at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health.
All opinions are my own and in no way represent anyone else or any of the organizations for which I work.
About History of Vaccines: I am the editor of the History of Vaccines site, a project of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia. Please read the About page on the site for more information.
About Epidemiological: I am the sole contributor to Epidemiological, my personal blog to discuss all sorts of issues. It also has an About page you should check out.