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Nineteen years ago yesterday, Al-Qaeda terrorists hijacked four passenger airliners, crashing them into the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers, the Pentagon, and—thanks to the bravery of Americans aboard Flight 93—a field in Pennsylvania. 2977 Americans lost their lives that day, with another 25,000 injured in the aftermath.
I was a junior in high school when the attacks occurred. My classmates and I first heard about it during trigonometry class with our ancient math teacher, one of those public school double-dippers who was pulling a pension but still teaching (to her credit, she was a good math teacher). The psychology teacher from across the hall—a large, red-faced woman—burst into the room, blubbering, “They’ve attacked the Pentagon!”
To my shame, the class erupted in laughter. We weren’t laughing because we thought it was good news—like those Muslims partying on rooftops and those public school kids in New York cheering at the destruction. We laughed because it was so absurd (it didn’t help that a very rotund, hysterical woman shouted it hysterically). America, attacked? Who would do something so foolish? It was so beyond our comprehension, we couldn’t believe it.
As the day wore on, we realized pretty quickly that something terrible had happened. I don’t remember if we watched news footage during the day, but we were not sent home early. Indeed, we had marching band practice that afternoon. But there were real fears: would terrorists attempt an attack on the Savannah River Site, where we used to process tritium for nuclear weapons?
My dad was in Pennsylvania at the time at a work conference. Of course, Flight 93 went down in Pennsylvania, and all air travel was shut down (my German teacher commented on how it was probably the first time since the rise of commercial aviation that no aircraft were in the skies). Fortunately, he was safe, and road the rails back to South Carolina. My grandparents were out in the Southwest, and rented a Toyota Camry to drive cross-country (they went on to purchase the vehicle).
In the coming days, we came to find out it was the work of radical Islamic terrorists. I recall a conversation with friends in which I suggested we ban any travel and immigration from any countries with a majority Muslim population until we got this terrorism threat worked out. It wasn’t long after that President Bush started in with the “Islam is a religion of peace” nonsense, but there was a brief, albeit very mild, nativist flare-up (when the French refused to join us in the Iraq War, restaurants changed French fries to “freedom fries” on their menus).
It felt like our Pearl Harbor.
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