When the World Stopped Turning

I remember that morning. I was doing schoolwork in the kitchen, with the rest of my family going about their daily business as usual. My dad came into the room to ask my mom if she knew that the country was on high alert; she did not, of course, but he had just been on the phone and heard the news playing in the background: a plane had hit the Pentagon, he said, as well as some building in New York City.

Before September 11th, my only knowledge of the World Trade Center was that it withstood a fictitious disaster that destroyed the city in a CBS miniseries less than two years earlier. “The Twin Towers are still standing,” I remember someone saying from a helicopter as her team surveyed the damage. She seemed almost proud, given how much of the city didn’t survive; even Lady Liberty had taken the hit (as all the promos showed). How strange and ironic that she would soon be staring back at the smoldering heap where the towers once stood – not survivors of a massive earthquake, but the targets of a successful terror attack on the United States of America.

Like most people in the country (and many throughout the world), my family spent the rest of that day in front of the television. We heard the live recap as more information poured in. We saw the terrible footage coming out of New York and Washington. We listened to the continuous updates on national security and missing planes. We watched the second tower fall in real time.

Everyone lives through moments that later generations won’t understand. Most people witness history in the making at some point in their lives, and we always remember. It tends to fade with time, but there are some things you never forget. Some things have a way of taking us back to those days, reminding us how it felt when it happened and in the days that followed.

At the time, I listened to a lot of country music. And there, more than any other realm of pop culture, we saw a massive shift toward patriotism. It seemed like everyone was singing about the red, white, and blue or how blessed they were to be an American child. Three songs, in particular, epitomized the time.

Brooks and Dunn’s “Only in America” had been on the radio for several weeks before September 11th; the music video even featured a shot of the ill-fated towers themselves in the opening lines about New York City. It was a soaring, joyous celebration of American exceptionalism that became one of those “right place, right time” hits.

The 1984 classic “God Bless in the U.S.A.” (by Lee Greenwood) ended up being played so much in the wake of the terrorist attacks that it actually became a top 20 hit again after seventeen years. No other modern song captures the pride of the American spirit quite like that one. Someone even joked about making it the new national anthem.

And of course, Alan Jackson debuted his own moving tribute to the events of September 11th – “Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)?” – at the CMA Awards in November of the same year. I saw it live with my family, and the lyrics spoke for everyone. It summed up the range of emotions we all felt while centering on an important theme that took hold in the aftermath of the attacks: religion.

You see, patriotism wasn’t the only thing that Americans rediscovered after September 11th; they also went back to church. As usual, tragedy led people to seek God as they came together in solidarity for their country… and for the victims. The attackers who flew the planes had been motivated by religion, so many of us were reminded of our own faith – one that didn’t lead us to murder innocents. For the first time, we drew a sharp contrast between the mostly Christian west and the radical Islam of the east. If anything could be credited (or blamed) for the differences between us, religion seemed a likely candidate.

But all the church-going and the flag-waving turned out to be fleeting and largely superficial. Once the smoke settled and everyone knew they were safe again, things more or less went back to normal. I remember one TV show saying as much a few months later. Less than a year after that, someone released a song asking if we had forgotten about the event altogether.

We didn’t forget. We just didn’t do anything about it. Our society made no lasting changes to the trajectory we had already taken. Even after suffering at the hands of an evil and opposing ideology, we continued to drift further from the fundamental beliefs on which western civilization was built. Losing 3,000 people made us sad and angry, but it wasn’t enough to bring any permanent and positive change. Instead of looking to those fundamentals – instead of asking what made us stronger or better than our enemies – we simply delegated the immediate problem and went back to the way things were.

Some wanted to know why the killers hated us, as if America had reason to feel guilty. Most simply wanted to see justice done, which is why the United States invaded Afghanistan to find Osama bin Laden. The search paid off ten years later, when he was located and killed in Pakistan. The invasion, on the other hand, turned out to be a waste of time in the end – not because it was pointless or entirely unsuccessful, but because our current president recently undid everything that had been otherwise accomplished. Thirteen service members died in our disastrous withdrawal, most of whom were too young to even remember September 11th.

This happened just in time for the 20th anniversary of the event. It’s been twenty years ago today, almost to the hour, since the worst foreign attack in American history. Entire planeloads of people perished in an instant – or four – though “some went down like heroes in that Pennsylvania field.” The hijackers on the fourth plane were thwarted in their mission (whatever it was) by brave passengers already aware of the attack on the World Trade Center. The Pentagon might have been totally destroyed if not for a similar effort by people with less time to resist. The day came to be known as 9/11, with plenty of eerie references to 9-1-1, the national emergency number. People even pointed out the resemblance between the Twin Towers and the number 11, the date on which they fell.

But look where we are today. We have “education scholars” and school board members in Virginia who oppose honoring 9/11 victims or teaching students about the hijackers’ religious extremism, as these things might create prejudice against Muslims like themselves. Our president shows more ire for Americans who don’t take his medical advice than for the terrorists to whom he just relinquished Afghanistan. And his secretary of state expresses “disappointment” in the Taliban – not for being murderers, but for failing to show “inclusivity” in their new government. We’re more concerned now with not offending the wrong people than with facing the truth about what happened.

This is not meant as an attack on Muslims. In his autobiographical book Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus, Nabeel Qureshi described September 11th from the perspective of a peaceful Muslim-American (who would later convert to Christianity), and I sympathize with those in his shoes who experience any kind of distrust or prejudice. But we can’t be naïve about the difference between the Muslim world and the ours. The fact that we so often use the words “peaceful Muslim” should tell us everything. Let’s not forget that the 9/11 hijackers were peaceful too… until they weren’t. (Liberals might call them “mostly” peaceful, like the domestic terrorists who destroyed their own cities in America last year.)

We’re all Americans, and we should all honor the heroes and victims of this tragic day – whatever we believe in, wherever we come from. The fact that we can’t all do that anymore is indicative of the larger problem: that unlike our radical enemies, we’re no longer united behind a set of beliefs. Some of us remember the grief and patriotism that followed the terrorist attacks, but instead of passing that along to the next generation – instead of choosing to center our lives around God and family – we’ve become dependent on Netflix and Facebook, without meaning or faith in anything. That’s why so much of what mattered on September 11th has passed away.

I pray that the heroic spirit of those who sacrificed for others – servicemen, first responders, even airline passengers – will be remembered and revived throughout the nation. I pray that our government’s negligence doesn’t allow for another such tragedy. And I pray that we can come together again as “one nation, under God, with liberty and justice for all.”

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