Ten years ago this morning, I was awakened at dawn by a phone call from my grandmother in Queens, N.Y.
“I just wanted to make sure you all were OK,” she said.
“Uh, sure, why wouldn’t we be?” I asked groggily.
“They bombed New York and Washington,” she replied.
I turned on the television. Five minutes later I was in my car, speeding toward the newsroom, carrying images that remain burned in my brain to this day.
We all share them. Some of us dwell on them, some don’t. But all our lives have changed because of them.
We worked feverishly that day, trying to glean every nugget of information we could from sources everywhere from lower Manhattan to Oakland City Hall. It was the only time in my career that I’ve helped put an extra mid-day edition on the street without prior planning, a pell-mell blur of instant journalism.
For maybe 30 seconds each hour, each of us would suddenly stop, transfixed by the latest video clip, some new vantage point from which to watch those inexorable, murderous trajectories. Then we would wipe our eyes and go rushing back out the door or onto the phones.
Our stories in the following few days reflected on what it might bring. War? Domestic distrust? Impinged civil liberties? I’ve never been unhappier to have helped make accurate predictions.
We lost something that day. In some ways, ours has become a lesser nation.
That’s not to say we didn’t rise to the challenge. We were grievously attacked; we responded, and our enemies have paid dearly.
But think of the lexicon we’ve had to teach ourselves in the decade since. “Improvised explosive device.” “Up-armored Humvee.” “Threat level orange.” “Full-body scanner or pat-down search?” “PATRIOT Act.” “Ground Zero mosque.”
Maybe it’s that last one that bothers me most. I just saw it most recently just the other day in an e-mail update from Terry Jones, the execrable “man of God” from Florida who made a public name for himself by burning the Koran.
It’s not a mosque; it’s a community center with a prayer space. It’s not at Ground Zero; it’s two blocks away, about as far as the Off-Track Betting facility and the strip club.
More importantly, it’s in America, where we shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.
And real Americans don’t burn books, damn it.
I’ve spent a big chunk of my professional life in the past 10 years investigating an organization called Your Black Muslim Bakery, a cross between a (dis)organized crime family and a religious cult of personality. Now defunct, its members engaged in kidnapping, extortion, torture and murder. My life was threatened as I reported on one of them this year.
Its name aside, the bakery had no more to do with Islam than the sub-humans who hijacked the planes. None were godly men; they were arrogant thugs – in one case driven by greed and power, in the other by hateful ideology – who murdered to make a point.
But we reward their evildoing and disgrace our national heritage when we paint others with the same brush.
Real Muslims don’t murder. Real Americans don’t automatically assume they do. And we shame the memories of our cherished dead – those who died that day, and who have died since – by letting terrorists’ blind hatred drive us to blind hatred.
They were wild-eyed zealots. We mustn’t be.
Our nation lost an “it can’t happen here” innocence that day. We’ve struggled ever since with how to cope. Let’s mark this 10th anniversary as a fitting moment to graduate into the adulthood of our new age, and return to the principles of inclusion, equality and freedom for which we’re supposed to stand.