A US flag at the World Trade Center Memorial.
A US flag at the World Trade Center Memorial. Credit: Jesse Kunerth / Shutterstock
TERRY COWGILL
TERRY COWGILL

In a column I wrote 20 years ago for The Lakeville Journal a few days after 9/11, I recalled the words of the wanderer, Marlow, in William Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” as he finally came upon the haunting and atavistic hovel of the notorious Col. Kurtz: “The horror. The horror.”

Rewind more than 10 years earlier to Jan. 17, 1991, when, as Operation Desert Storm commenced in Baghdad, CNN anchor Bernard Shaw proclaimed, “It feels like we’re in the center of hell.”

No, Bernie. I’m afraid the bombs over Baghdad lost that distinction when four jetliners crashed separately in New York, Washington, and western Pennsylvania. Bernie couldn’t possibly have known it at the time, but Lower Manhattan would be the closest thing to the underworld we have seen since the Civil War and the Battle of Antietam, in which over 20,000 people lost their lives in a single military confrontation.

The scene at the World Trade Center had all the earmarks of hell: towering fireballs; carnage of an unspeakable magnitude; airborne debris and acrid smoke thick enough to eclipse the sun; bodies falling from the sky; and survivors running from the scene, many of them covered with the same ghostly residue that coated several blocks around the raven-black rubble of the vanquished towers.

Even 20 years later, just about everyone who was old enough can recall what they were doing when they heard the news. I was living in Connecticut but heard about the North Tower being hit while commuting to my office in a private school in New York’s Hudson Valley.

By the time I arrived, I was starved for more information. My building did not have a television, and the internet was still in its infancy. My honking dial-up modem (remember those?) yielded nothing but busy signals. So I fired up my desk radio and tuned it to all-news station WCBS 880 AM, whose studios were in Lower Manhattan, not far from Ground Zero. I listened to newsman Tony Guida paint the picture in words and make sense of it all.

After the South Tower was hit, I called my wife to see whether her school was closing (it did not), though my three-year-old daughter’s daycare did. I then made another call to see if my brother-in-law, who worked at a law firm in Times Square, was okay (he was).

Then the chain of catastrophes multiplied: the Pentagon was hit by a jet; yet another passenger plane crashed in a field in western Pennsylvania. There were reports — thankfully erroneous – that Camp David had been attacked and that a car bomb had hit the State Department. The sense of tragedy and foreboding were overwhelming, but what first brought a tear to my eye were the reports that some workers in the Twin Towers had voluntarily jumped to their deaths.

After New York itself, our state was one of the most profoundly affected by the attacks. An estimated 161 people – either Connecticut residents or people with close ties to the state – perished during 9/11. Hundreds of others went to Lower Manhattan to help with the search, rescue, and recovery. Hundreds more were injured or lost jobs as a result of the attacks. As of February, 520 Connecticut residents have submitted claims for health care survivor benefits or financial compensation to relatives of those who died that day.

In response, the nation united as never before in recent memory. At a candlelight vigil in my small town in Litchfield County, hundreds of people – many of them on opposite sides of the political spectrum – held hands and sang, “We Shall Overcome.” These displays of unity happened all over the country. In addition, a clear majority of Congress and the public supported President Bush’s decision to engage militarily in Afghanistan.

Was America divided before 9/11? It sure looked like it. Only 10 months earlier, we had experienced a contested presidential election (sound familiar?) that was ultimately decided by the U.S. Supreme Court. The Vietnam War ripped us apart, culturally and politically. Heck, the United States was literally at war with itself in the 19th century over the terribly divisive issue of slavery.

The question on my mind all week has been whether, if 9/11 had happened today, could we possibly come together as we did 20 years ago? Sadly, a review of the last 18 months suggests that we could not.

The global COVID-19 pandemic has killed orders of magnitude more people in the U.S. than 9/11 did. Yet we remain divided over how to address it. As the delta variant causes another surge in cases and public health officials urge precautions, millions of people refuse to heed the warnings, making it almost impossible to put a relatively quick end to the pandemic.

We can’t even agree that masking helps prevent the spread of the disease and the divide here is largely along partisan lines. To wit, a recent Monmouth University poll found that 85% of Democrats supported a return of mask rules while three-quarters of Republicans opposed them.

As I wrote last month, an unruly mob interrupted a discussion in Cheshire on reopening Connecticut’s public schools. Protesters used profanity and intimidation tactics against Cheshire schools staff, the superintendent, a state representative, and Gov. Ned Lamont. The main bone of contention: an executive order requiring students and staff to mask up until Sept. 30 in the face of a dangerous resurgence of the virus.

While public opinion of vaccinations is slowly moving in the right direction, 19% of Americans report that they will not get vaccinated. Fully 26% of Republicans, “the largest major source of vaccine opposition in the country,” say they are opposed to getting vaccinated at all, according to a Morning Consult poll from mid to late August. If these numbers had prevailed in the 19th century, there is no way we could have beaten measles, rubella, and polio. In modern-day America, Jonas Salk and Stanley Plotkin would stand accused of being communist agents hellbent on taking away our right to what we want with our bodies.

I really derive no enjoyment from being such a pessimist, but I don’t think we can unite anymore on any matter of urgent public policy. We can’t even agree on the depravity of the January 6 insurrection at the Capitol in Washington. Another Monmouth survey conducted earlier this summer found that half of Republican voters characterize the violent attack as “legitimate protest.”

And not to blame it all on the digital age, but social media platforms have amplified our differences and given comfort to those on the fringes who previously had no voice and felt isolated. Now they can congregate with the like-minded, secure in the knowledge that millions share their kooky beliefs and liberated from having to use their real names and look their adversaries in the eye.

In short, we’re all screwed now.

Contributing op-ed columnist Terry Cowgill lives in Lakeville, blogs at PolitiConn and is managing editor of The Berkshire Edge in Great Barrington, Mass. Follow him on Twitter @terrycowgill or email him at tcowgill90@wesleyan.edu.

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