The way we were before September changed it all

“Turn on your television … a plane just hit the World Trade Center in New York.”

I can’t even imagine how many times those words were uttered twenty years ago, but like nearly everyone of age at the time, I can tell you exactly where I was the moment I learned. And I know almost every moment of that day and the mournful, hollow, existential days that followed. The approach and passing of September 11, 2021 brought much discussion and contemplation of that fateful day two decades past. But what about the “carefree” summer months leading up to that horrific moment? Who were we before the towers fell?

This past weekend in the Washington Post, Dan Zak and Ellen McCarthy put together a powerful piece of reflection that is both beautifully written and hauntingly thoughtful in its look back twenty years plus to the Summer of 2001, “The Summer Before 9/11.” Zak and McCarthy remind us how those summer days were “Freewheeling. Foreboding. Then came the Fall.” And as I read their retrospective piece, I thought deeply about the way we were, how it was, what it’s like now, and where we go next. 

During the summer of 2001, Shrek and the Fast and the Furious premiered at the box office, and both films would go on to become huge film franchises. Many of us probably spent a fair amount of time in cool movie theaters because June and July were real scorchers across much of the country. Songs like Train’s “Drops of Jupiter” and “Bootylicious” by Destiny’s Child were playing on the radio because at that time there was no Pandora, no Spotify, and no YouTube to stream the music. However, music lovers would soon be able to listen to those songs and others on their new iPods, which premiered just a few weeks after the world fell apart. 

If you were at the beach that summer, you might have been reading Jonathan Franzen’s huge bestseller, The Corrections. Later in the year, you’d spend time talking about the Oprah controversy when Franzen dissed her book club. Other popular reads were Richard Russo’s Empire Falls and David McCullough’s John Adams, though you might not have taken them to the beach after Time Magazine declared 2001 “The summer of the Shark.” In the news we read about the tech bubble bursting and how, despite a trillion dollar tax cut, the economy was mostly treading water that summer.

In the summer of 2001, I was teaching high school English in southern Illinois, just outside St. Louis, while finishing up my master’s degree in English Language and Literature. I was beginning to think about Ph.D programs, as I spent a fair amount of time researching and writing in the air conditioned graduate library of Washington University, St. Louis. My wife, also a teacher, was pregnant with our first child; our son would be born six months after the planes hit the towers. I know now how we wondered what kind of world our children would inherit.

In many ways September 11, 2001, is a pivotal event. However, in the aftermath of twenty years, it’s clear the date also became an entire era, the post-9/11 world. And if that is accurate, then it’s worth considering what the previous era was. Was it just one day or is it an entire mindset? Did the moment change the world? If so, then what was it like before? What did we lose and also what did we gain? And what has changed that doesn’t fit smoothly into the gain-loss columns. While the country did not feel quite as divisive then as it does now, we were in the early days of the most contested presidency in a hundred years. And to be perfectly honest, the caustic divisive partisanship had been stewing since at least 1994. So, all was not necessarily well and good in the days before the fall of the towers. But then again, it never really is.

In a beautiful remembrance at the Flight 93 memorial last weekend, former President George W Bush noted, as so many have, how that fateful September morning twenty years ago changed everyone forever. That is undoubtedly true, and with that in mind, it’s important to note specifically who we were and how we changed. 

Michael P. Mazenko is a writer, educator, & school administrator in Greenwood Village. He blogs at A Teacher’s View and can be found on Twitter @mmazenko. You can email him at mmazenko@gmail.com