Sunday, September 4, 2011


My workday began a little earlier than usual the morning of September 11, 2001. I was a young City Hall reporter for the Lawrence Journal-World in Kansas, used to covering night meetings, but a special committee in charge of crafting the town's tax abatement policy met at 8 am that day, and the topic was important enough that I was there.

The meeting was being run by Jim Henry, a member of the city commission. I didn't notice when he slipped out of the gathering—but suddenly he burst back in. The Twin Towers and Pentagon had been hit by suicide bombers, he said. There was terror in his voice. "It sounds like a Tom Clancy novel," I thought. The meeting was over. I went back to the office.

I spent most of the rest of the day in the newsroom, watching the tiny television as the first tower—and then the second—came down. The Journal-World put out an extra edition that afternoon; I spent my day vainly trying to get and to load.

It wasn't long before I had a realization: I had become a reporter because I wanted to see history with my own eyes. And history was being made half-a-continent away. One thing led to another, and in late October I found myself in my car, driving to Pennsylvania and New York to interview people and see the devastation with my own eyes.

Weeks had passed, but the devastation was still fresh—particularly in New York, where a facade of one of the towers still rose high above the street, higher than any building I knew in Kansas. A fire was still burning in the pit of Ground Zero, and the entire section of lower Manhattan smelled—as I think I wrote for the Journal-World at the time—like a giant, rancid barbecue pit.

The experience changed my life, profoundly, though it would take some time for the changes to make themselves apparent—and perhaps they still are. The changes were most noticeable in three areas of my life:

• I LOST MY FAITH: This, admittedly, was a process that had been going on a long time. For some years prior to 9/11, I had realized that I didn't believe that Christianity was the exclusive route to God—a hard realization, considering my upbringing and my Mennonite college education. Nonetheless, I continued to attend church, finding a happy home at a quite liberal Lawrence Mennonite congregation. I justified myself with the thought that while Christianity wasn't the only way to God, it was the language of faith I'd been given. The direction, pointed at God, was what mattered.

In the aftermath of 9/11—and as religious conflicts seemingly found their way into the news more and more often—that approach made less and less sense to me. It wasn't that Christianity and Islam were different languages trying to describe the same phenomenon; both languages, and multiple others, constantly asserted that they were the only true language. And I realized that without God making Godself visible to sort it out for us, there was no way to properly pick out the true approach; it would all be guesswork and gut feelings, at the end of the day. No way to know you're right, and a million ways to go wrong. I decided that if God existed, God would forgive me for refusing to play a game I couldn't possibly know how to win. And in the process, I'd remove myself from a grander battle of truth assertions that no human could ever really adjudicate. There were better ways to spend my time; the words of hymns and prayers started to taste like lies in my mouth.

About a year after 9/11, I called my pastor and told her I was leaving the church.

A key part of my Mennonite faith, incidentally was a very strict pacifism. Without that faith, my unbreakable nonviolence crumbled. I remain extremely dovish. But it doesn't bother me that Osama bin Laden is dead; it would've, a little, 10 years ago.

• I STARTED TO CARE ABOUT POLITICS: I'd always been interested in politics, but as the first phase of the Afghanistan War wound down and as the campaign for the Iraq Invasion began—and as hints emerged that the United States was torturing terrorist suspects—my cynicism and detachment dropped by the wayside. I got angry at all the ways the Bush Administration seemed to violate civil liberties, manipulate public opinion, and conduct war. I began to read more deeply than I ever had: the New York Times and Washington Post, every day. As many books as I could read—my devotion to novels suffered mightily in favor of research from Thomas Ricks and Jane Mayer and Seymour Hirsch and so on and so forth.

My anger made it more difficult to continue under the guise of an objective, neutral reporter. So when the opportunity arose in late 2007 to do opinion writing for Scripps Howard News Service, I jumped. I didn't turn back.

• MY WORLD GOT BIGGER: I had never been in New York before the trip that took me to the still-smoking Ground Zero. I spent the week making my way gradually, stopping at towns along the way to interview ordinary Americans about how their lives had changed. Along the way, I began to realize the country was much, much bigger than I'd ever contemplated.

It wasn't just the distance—although a 2,000-mile solo driving trip will give you plenty of time to contemplate. It was the experience. In New York, I was taken to the apartment of a Puerto Rican family to interview them about their experiences; they were excellent hosts, but my mind reeled at their living conditions—a well-appointed apartment, yes, but how could a family of four live in such a space? That's what single-family houses were for! It dawned on me in a visceral way that not everybody lived the way I had been raised in rural Kansas.

Which was obvious enough, even to me, but I'd never felt the difference before. And in the years after I left New York, I began to chafe. Not only did I read more widely, I wanted to travel more widely. (Which I did to the limited extent a reporter's salary would allow.) Before 9/11, my expectation was to have a career in Kansas newspapers. Maybe I'd even end up with a big regional newspaper in Kansas City or St. Louis. Somehow, I ended up in Philadelphia. Freelancing. It is nothing I ever would have anticipated, or even aimed for, until it happened.

Philadelphia is not better than Kansas. But it is certainly different, and different from my wife's Arkansas upbringing. We live with our son in a smaller apartment than the one I visited in New York, and we find it mostly satisfying. And I feel fairly certain I wouldn't be here without 9/11, and the reaction it produced in me.

It is, perhaps, narcissistic in the extreme to take a look at a key moment in our nation's recent history and reflect on what it means for me personally. But history doesn't exist merely in the broad sweep: It changes lives, dozens and hundreds and thousands and millions of people at a time. I am a different man today than I was on 9/11 because 10 years have passed, and because I am married and have a son now. But I am a different man, too, because 9/11 happened. Because of that, my son is living a different life than he would have. It's all normal, and it's all completely different.


Notorious Ph.D. said...

As a historian, I loved this:

"It is, perhaps, narcissistic in the extreme to take a look at a key moment in our nation's recent history and reflect on what it means for me personally. But history doesn't exist merely in the broad sweep: It changes lives, dozens and hundreds and thousands and millions of people at a time."

This is, in fact, the essence of history as it is practiced by many professionals today. It's not all about the grand narrative, which tends to be political institutional in nature. Cultural and social changes are just as worthy of examination. Even more interesting are the way that the political and the personal interact. That's what's so cool about history.

Anonymous said...

Excellent post.