9/11 Eleven Years Out

by Kevin S. Baldwin

It was one of the most perfect autumn days I had ever experienced. Sunny, clear, with just a bit of crispness in the air, and a slight breeze. The colors of foliage and sky were super-saturated. It was one of those times where there was no doubt that it is great to be alive.

Mississippi-River-IllinoisI was out on the Mississippi River about 10 miles North of Burlington, Iowa with some colleagues on what was essentially a fundraising expedition. We were accompanying a generous alum who had grown up on the river and was thinking of buying some riverfront property for his retirement that would be donated to the college for use as a biological field station upon his death. We had just shut off the small outboard motor and were slowly drifting south, with the water gently lapping against the side of the boat. We grabbed a few lotus plants that were floating on the water's surface that reflected the bright blue of the sky. Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer had nothing on us. It was beautiful. Peaceful.

A cell phone rang and the moment evaporated. I was annoyed. Had technology made it so we could no longer sever ourselves from the world we have created, if only to enjoy the natural world for a few moments? I tried to calm my inner Luddite.

One of our party answered. There was a pause, and I slowly began to realize something big was up. I could make out a few words from the clearly agitated caller, like “twin towers”, “Pentagon” and “we're under attack.” It was still early in the morning and the full horror of the day had yet to unfold. Given that we didn't know much, we decided to cut short our journey and head back to shore.

We drove back to campus in silence and what seemed like slow motion. I was still struggling with the dissonance of floating blissfully on the river and then receiving that phone call. It was like welcoming a child into the world and receiving a pancreatic cancer diagnosis in the same hospital visit. Who would attack us? Why would they do so? I fumbled for an explanation. Only upon learning of the magnitude of the day's events did I realize whatever I felt, paled in comparison to the horrors experienced by the witnesses and victims.

I had visited New York as a kid and remember seeing this absolutely enormous hole in the ground. The workers at the bottom seemed impossibly tiny from our vantage at street level. Could they really be that far below the surface? My mind reeled. The hole of course later became part of the foundation for the twin towers. I revisited the trade center complex when I was in college and was still awestruck by the scale of the complex. Surely it would stand for centuries, a monument to the late 20th century zeitgeist! Later, as globalization accelerated and its darker side became more apparent, my feelings about the towers became a bit more ambivalent. Regardless of how one felt about them, as a symbolic gesture, leveling them, by turning our own technology against us no less, was a brilliant move by Al Qaeda (in its own twisted way).

I understood why the US responded to Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, but never believed the justifications for invading Iraq. Weren't a majority of the hijackers from Saudi Arabia? Shouldn't that in and of itself, have indicated something? Because of the scale and success of the attacks, it has been perhaps too easy to dismiss them as acts of fanatical fundamentalists and avoid any serious national introspection. Possibly the closest we got was George W. Bush's observation that we are addicted to oil. This from a man who knew much about addiction, but unfortunately never led us beyond the first step.

We missed a great opportunity. How much further along could we be with a reimagined energy policy if we had thought a bit more deeply about the events of that fateful day and quelled our desire for vengeance? What if instead, we had initiated a Manhattan Project level program to increase energy efficiency? What if all the construction workers laid off in the aftermath of the great housing bubble had been employed retrofitting older houses and buildings with insulation? How many fewer parts per million of carbon dioxide would be in the atmosphere? So much could have changed, but so much remained the same or entrenched even further.

As the days grow shorter and the heat and humidity of summer abate, my mind returns to that perfect moment on a small skiff on the Mississippi, drifting in the current on that beautiful autumn morning. But there really is no going back. I only hope we can go forward more productively and imaginatively than we have so far. It's been over a decade: Let us resolve to rearrange and reconsider our relationship to other nations and to our planet, so that a quarter of a century after 9/11, we can say that the events of that day initiated something transformational and positive.