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10 Years Later: The Lessons and Promises of 9/11

american flag usaTen years ago this Sunday, I rose very early to get a bunch of work done before heading to the beach to go surfing. I had worked right through the preceding Labor Day weekend, a swell had risen overnight and I wanted to grab a half-day off in the surf before the autumn working pace really picked up again.

My phone buzzed several times on the drive to the beach at Sandy Hook, NJ, but it wasn't until I arrived that I listened to my voice mail and learned that a plane had crashed in New York City. At that point radio stations were still playing music, and no one really understood what had happened.

Over the next hour or so, I walked to the end of the New Jersey coast, and with a very small group of other folks, watched the Twin Towers come down. We didn't know it at the time, as we could see only huge columns of smoke and ash, but it was a chilling sight.

Without the facts of the story, I had no idea a terrorist attack had occurred, and I got in the ocean. But when I got out beyond the whitewater, alone and quiet, I became utterly overwhelmed with concern for friends and family. I took one wave, then headed for the beach and for home. My experience was later written up in Surfer Magazine, with a follow-up this past month.

Over the coming days, I maintained a list of members of the rowing community who had survived or been lost in the attacks. Just two days after the towers fell, I went back into New York City, where I had lived for over a decade, and ventured to what would soon be called Ground Zero to see for myself the carnage the attacks had wrought. I lasted about an hour; when veteran Marines on the scene started running for cover as small explosions went off, I knew it was time for me to get out of there.

Airport Security: Your Questions Answered

Security in an Insecure Time
The weekend after the attacks, I was sitting in an acoustically sealed studio for a live radio interview on National Public Radio with one other guest -- one of many post-9/11 interviews I did as a travel writer for this Web site. To close the show, the interviewer asked if we should expect more or similar attacks. The other guest strongly believed that we should, and in particular felt that our train system was next. For some reason I felt less alarmed and less worried; it seemed to me that the targets of the Twin Towers attack were dramatic and incredibly symbolic, and I simply did not think that we were going to start seeing attacks on trains to Hartford, CT, or casino buses to Atlantic City.

In truth, I was concerned but still somewhat calm about the dangers terrorism brought to our previously innocent shores, in a country that had not seen significant war-related bloodshed on our own soil for many decades. No matter how dramatic the attacks, and how absolutely real the sense of vulnerability, I wasn't sure we were in more danger than people living in Europe 60 years previously, a place such as Northern Ireland a couple decades before or even contemporary Central America. These cunningly evil attacks left a giant wound, and I certainly felt less safe, but somehow not more truly vulnerable -- maybe just more aware of the dangers of the 21st century, faced by many worldwide. And I credit our great country for the luxury of that feeling; 10 years on, the feeling has not abandoned me.

But the other speaker had a point that none of us could have realized at the time, long before the creation of the Homeland Security Department and the TSA. What we have done with our transit system since then is telling -- almost no one can get on a commercial plane with even a half-bottle of water, but absolutely anyone can get on a train/bus/boat, fly a private plane or drive a truck across a giant bridge with just about anything you can imagine on their person.

Even if you believe, as many do, that what we have at the airport is "security theater" rather than meaningful measures to keep us safe, it's hard to believe that no potential attacks were discouraged by the difficulty of getting into an airport terminal. So a miserable and chronically late short flight with 50 passengers is mostly safe from terrorists, but a packed Acela train is not. Ugh.

The Post-9/11 Effect on Travel: An Infographic

The Spirit of 9/11
airport crowded travel travelers departure boardThis summer, I took 14 long-haul flights, both across the country and overseas. On my last flight of the summer, I saw the movie "Easy Rider." It's a strange movie, but certainly an American movie, and at the end the main character, thinking back on their trip across the country, says to his traveling buddy, "We blew it." He felt that they had an opportunity to realize some sort of transcendence from traversing their country, but instead they had focused on lucre, and failed to tap into the lessons the country had to offer.

In our own trip into the heart of the 21st century, we still have a chance not to blow it, if we remember the days after September 11, when many countries were ready to stand down from their tremendously expensive Olympics bid efforts and simply concede the 2012 Games to New York City, so that it might heal; when the reciprocal notion of "Ich bin en Berliner" -- the idea that the whole was with us, was one of us -- was something that people felt about America; when anyone would have extended a helping hand to us, the world's only remaining superpower.

Everyone has a 9/11 story; they know where they were, what they were doing, what they were thinking. Think back on your own story, back to that moment and what you felt at the time. Many Americans felt a strong sense of community, of country, of fellowship -- somehow we have forgotten those feelings. But how? At the time, it felt like they would never leave us.

As a frequent traveler and a travel writer, I have spent part of almost every day researching or thinking or writing about some aspect of the fallout of those attacks. Somehow, the sense that we were all in it together has gone missing; if we work hard enough to capture the quicksilver sense of things we had in those difficult days, we can recover that sense of community, of being together, of pride in who we are and how we treat people. If you remembered to hold your loved ones a little bit closer, let's remember those things. If on that day, you lived not so much in fear, but in empathy and sympathy for your countrymen, let's remember those things. In the hardest times, every great nation has rallied to help each other, not to attack each other. Let's allow that to be the spirit of 9/11, not fear, hate and terror.

Five Things You Shouldn't Wear on a Plane

The New Normal?
Over the past 10 years, the phrase "the New Normal" has arisen to describe any number of things that have changed permanently since 9/11, especially the travel experience. The New Normal involves zip-top bags for liquids, the removal of shoes and belts, long lines, suspicious looks from security personnel, and ever-changing rules that are urgent one day, are rescinded the next and seem almost silly a year on. In fact, for my young son, who is now 5 years old and has 66,000 frequent flier miles, this is normal, end stop. It's not a big deal -- but maybe it should be.

When we congregate at the airport now, we often feel angry, put upon and miserable, due in no small part to our government's reaction to the events of 9/11. Old folks are getting manhandled, people with mental illness are getting tasered and the rest of us aren't treated so darn well, admit it. I know it is hard work to screen the heaps of people who go through airports on any given day, but we still must do better. It is our role and duty as citizens to keep the pressure on our elected officials and their hired forces to continue to keep us safe without crippling our system while they do so, without casting aside people with disabilities or those who are different, without turning our land of opportunity into a place of fear and intimidation.

On Labor Day 2011, arriving at customs at Newark Airport, I got into a line of what I estimated to include well over 1,000 people, all waiting to get into our country. Perhaps due to holiday staffing, there were only 10 or 12 customs agents in the booths greeting these huddled masses sneaking text messages to their waiting families on their cell phones (which are banned in customs areas). It occurred to me that that room looked a whole lot like what it must have looked like at Ellis Island during the great waves of immigration. I have no illusions that the environment at Ellis Island was a comfortable one. People arrived sick and even dying, had the spelling of their names changed, or were simply given new names, almost eradicating family histories. Some people weren't supposed to be there and were sneaking their way into the country, much as we see today.

All these years on, it is fair to hope that these locations where people touch down in our country might be places in which we take pride, where our best people and spirit can be found, places that show the potential and nature of our people. We are clearly not there just now. Despite all my faults and those of our union, I consider myself a patriotic American, and that demands a sense of duty not only to protect each other, but also to keep from turning on each other when a bad guy stirs things up.

Get the Latest Airport Security News on Our Blog

hike hiker view woman camera panorama mountainMoving Forward
This past year, this column won an award for an essay titled What's Wrong with Airport Security (and What to Do About It). Although I later had to reconsider parts of my stance on full body scanners (due to inaccuracies shared by the TSA at the time about radiation levels and other issues), I hope that articles like this give voice to folks who will hold us all to higher standards both of security for everyone and safety for individuals.

When reading (and writing) about travel, sometimes it feels like travel is all nuts and bolts -- passports and shoes, fare searches and car rental bidding. In truth, it's not even close. Nonetheless, for my part, I will keep placing calls to the TSA asking about new policies, and will report them back to you. I will keep trying to find ways for us all to remain global citizens, and to get out and see our own incredible country. And as always, as I did on 14 flights this summer between our benchmark holidays of Memorial Day, when we honor and remember the people who defend our country, and Labor Day, when we honor and remember the people who live and work here, I will refuse to live in fear. I'll dump my water and take off my shoes until together we figure out a better way. And above all, I'll ...

Go Anyway,
Ed Hewitt
Features Editor
The Independent Traveler


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