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The indispensable Beloit College Mindset List informs us that matriculating freshmen have never heard Ed McMahon announce “Heeeeeere’s Johnny!” on live television, have never been darkened by the shadow of the Berlin Wall, and have never flown on Eastern Airlines. We have not quite reached the point when some adults don’t remember September 11, 2001. But that day approaches.
Like Pearl Harbor or the Kennedy Assassination, 9/11 is an event whose impression is so deeply etched in the minds of those who lived through it that it remains forever fresh. Those horrible events play so central a role in our collective consciousness that encountering grown men and women without this experiential common denominator undoubtedly will prove quite jarring. The artificial memory provided by YouTube, Google, and television documentaries just doesn’t quite capture the day.
I lived and worked in Washington, DC on 9/11. As usual, I arrived late for my job. The sirens in the background, the faces in the foreground, and the surreal reports on the car radio suggested something ugly on a beautiful day. Planes had crashed into one of the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, the local A.M. newsman reported, and the State Department had been bombed, too. This last bit of misinformation proved the first of many that day. Pictures rarely get it wrong, so television became the campfire around which Americans huddled. Never did the idiot box mesmerize us as it did then.
On 9/10, I had appeared on the idiot box debating the merits of the classroom study of pornography with one of the genre’s biggest stars, Nina Hartley (You could say we did a video together). It is difficult to conceive of our conversation occurring, on television or anywhere else, in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. Everything, from Washington’s obsession with a Congressman’s affair with a missing intern to the ability to drive by the White House on Pennsylvania Avenue, changed in the nation’s capital after 9/11. In this sense, 9/11 proved our longest day. It encompassed the anthrax attacks, which left many wondering if the postman would deliver powdery death to the mailbox. Its sun still hadn’t set by the DC sniper attacks, which desolated the normally no-vacancy front-window row of treadmills at my neighborhood Gold’s Gym. Even during the procession of Ronald Reagan’s casket down Constitution Avenue, when a terror false alarm at the Capitol sent panic-stricken 200-pound women and ashen-faced old men sprinting past me in Carl Lewis-fashion towards Union Station—it was still 9/11.
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