On September 11, 2001 I was working as a bookseller. When the planes hit the twin towers I was standing at the information desk. One of our booksellers who had the day off called at a few minutes after 9:00. Minutes later the staff was huddled around a radio in the back of the store, listening in disbelief.
In the weeks that followed the tragedy, our bookstore was empty. All the stores were empty. It seemed meaningless to purchase unnecessary goods. Suddenly our consumer culture seemed trivial and shallow. People were rethinking everything about their lives, about what it meant to be an American.
I remember a great deal of kindness. People treated one another with compassion. The whole nation was in a state of bereavement, and strangers spoke to one another gently. We were all Americans.
American flags were suddenly flying from cars and from homes, and it became impossible to find an American flag. Flag factories increased production,trying to meet the demand.
My church was packed to the rafters, and not just on Sunday. The midweek services, which normally filled about a quarter of the church, were equally packed.
When customers did come to the bookstore, they were looking for answers. We fielded many requests for books about the prophecies of Nostrodamus, books about Osama Bin Laden, the Taliban, and the history of the political and religious conflicts of the middle east.
Many people were out of work. Strange things were happening to our economy. There was very little consumer demand. At our bookstore, we were running on a skeleton staff. Often people were sent home early, and most of us were working fewer hours than we were used to. At the same time people were flooding the store with resumes, coming in and asking for applications. But we weren't hiring, and no one else was either. The nation seemed to be suspended in a state of shock.
In January I took a position teaching high school English, replacing a teacher who had left in the middle of the school year. I later discovered that many others entered the teaching profession at about the same time. People wanted to be doing something meaningful and productive with their lives. Just chasing after money seemed pointless, meaningless.
In the year following the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, I never, ever would have predicted that this nation would be where it is today. Adverserial relationships abound. Teachers and government workers are excoriated and demonized. We are so divided politically that it seems we are two nations. Vitriol and scathing attacks typify our political discourse. It almost seems that people go out of their way to be divisive, angry, and insulting.
There is no fellow-feeling among Americans. Instead we have factions, and then factions of factions.
It makes me wonder. What happened to the unity, the gentleness, the compassion of the months following the attacks?