It was a normal, September morning. I’d only been a reporter for about two years. I was driving from The Daily Independent, in Ashland, Kentucky, to cover a Greenup County Fiscal Court meeting (Kentucky’s version of a county commission).
Back then, I always listened to ESPN Radio in the morning, and I found it odd that Mike and Mike were talking about a plane hitting a building in New York City. It wasn’t just any building. It was one of the towers at the World Trade Center. But over radio and listening to guys who specialized in breaking down the NFL, it was hard to get a real sense of what was happening. Was it a personal aircraft? A turboprop commuter that had malfunctioned? No one, especially on ESPN Radio, knew. It was 2001, but even then the news traveled drastically slower than it does now.
The meeting at the Greenup County Courthouse got underway despite some palpable unease in the room. The county attorney wasn’t present. I realized that he was in an adjacent office watching the news when he stuck his head through a door and exclaimed to the commissioners the other tower had been hit. It wasn’t a small plane, and it wasn’t an accident. He implored the fiscal court to stop the meeting. He popped his head in again when the Pentagon was hit, and when the towers began to fall.
The fiscal court wrapped up its proceedings as quickly as possible. I hung around for a few minutes to watch some of the news, then started the 20-minute drive back to Ashland, just as unsure as everyone else about what was happening besides the obvious conclusion the country had been attacked. I don’t think I even owned a cellphone at the time (and smartphones and social media were still a few years away), so I just listened to the news on the radio in numb shock.
When I got back to the newsroom, all of the reporters were huddled around our publisher. The Independent was still an afternoon paper back then, so the deadline had been extended to remake the paper as more and more information started pouring in.
The only thing I remember saying was that I didn’t want to write a story for the next day on Greenup County authorizing the funds to rebuild its gazebo. I ended up helping another reporter gather some local reaction to what had occurred. I also called my then-girlfriend (now wife) several times that day, as we both grieved and asked unanswerable questions that millions of other Americans were pondering.
I had to go to a council meeting that night in a small town in Greenup County. They were the only ones not to cancel. I remember council members and attendees arguing virulently, even hurling insults at one another, about dog licenses. I sat there quietly, noting what was happening in that room seemed insane, given what had happened and, really, was still happening in New York, Washington, D.C., and a field in Pennsylvania.
Outside of one small town, though, the reaction was much different. The horrific attacks on Sept. 11 galvanized the country in a way I hadn’t seen in a while. Granted, I was in my early 20s, but keep in mind the Sept. 11 attacks came less than a year after a presidential election wasn’t decided on Election Night. Or the day after. Or the week after. It was eventually decided in the courts. I remember thinking at the time that wasn’t something that was supposed to happen in America.
After Sept. 11, there was collective grieving and collective resilience. Americans had to reassess nearly everything about their country and themselves. But knowing that, whatever happened, we were in it together certainly gave me solace, as I’m sure it did for many others.
Gradually, and somewhat inevitably, that bond began to separate. Going into Iraq really snapped the cord for some. These days, anywhere from five to 10 things I think shouldn’t happen in America take place before lunch. We’re a post-post-9/11 society. It seems every day that Americans are more far apart than ever. But I like to think that, deep down, we still know how to pull together, do what we can to help the afflicted and what we can to help each other.
There was a time when we said we were all New Yorkers. Really, we were saying we’re all Americans. I hope, someday, we can find that again, maybe this time without the aid of a national tragedy.