By GARRY RAYNO, InDepthNH.org
For Baby Boomers, you will always remember where you were on days when a world-changing event happens.
When President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, I was in Eighth Grade English class going over adverbs vs adjectives. The principal’s voice was wavering when he halted the class over the intercom system to say the president had been shot. As we all sat there in stunned disbelief, about half an hour later, he spoke again to say school was cancelled and everybody should go home.
Five years later I was at home when a news bulletin broke into some television program — probably a sitcom — to let the nation know Martin Luther King had been assassinated.
A short two months later, a United States history class was the setting when the class learned Robert Kennedy had died after being shot the night before.
I woke up the morning of Dec. 9, 1980, to learn John Lennon had been killed by a young gunman with JD Salinger’s “Catcher in the Rye” to read while he waited for the police to arrive. I was relieved I did not learn of Lennon’s death from Howard Cosell on Monday Night Football telecast as many did.
I was at home the evening President Ronald Reagan was shot March 30, 1981, by John Hinckley Jr., who believed his act would impress Jodie Foster.
On deadline working in the New London office of The Argus Champion, the phone rang as my brother told me the Challenger had blown up soon after take-off killing seven astronauts including teacher Christa McAuliffe from Concord.
The trail of smoke the spaceship left in the sky will never be forgotten by those who witnessed it.
And then there was Sept. 11, 2001, when the twin towers of the World Trade Center crashed to earth after terrorists used commercial airplanes as lethal weapons. The world soon learned the Pentagon had been hit by an airplane as well and another crashed in a Pennsylvania field when passengers overpowered the terrorist hijackers intent on flying it into the Capitol in Washington D.C.
I was at home in Bow, just back from a short vacation on Martha’s Vineyard and on the phone to my financial advisor’s office trying to transfer some funds. His assistant said you have to turn on the TV, an airplane has flown into the World Trade Center.
I turned the television on in time to see the second plane fly into the other tower and sat glued for the rest of the day watching history as it happened.
The country was under attack and came together to mourn the death and destruction that this county had largely escaped, unlike European countries which had experienced a number of terrorist attacks, but none quite as large as Sept. 11.
The country pulled together with the same determination it had in entering two world wars, not letting evil be the driving force in the world.
Congress put aside the usual bickering to quickly pass legislation intended to stop any further attacks and cripple terrorists’ financial networks that allowed them to operate around the world.
Some of that legislation may not have had the desired effect in the long-term, but served its purpose in the short-term to unite the country and move forward as one people.
With the terrorist attacks, planes were diverted from the skies over the United States and had to land in other countries, particularly Canada and the air space remained closed for days.
The citizens of Halifax, Nova Scotia and Gander Newfoundland came together to take care of the stranded travelers whose planes had landed at their airports when they could not enter United States air space.
Kindness and compassion were shown as the world mourned with the United States and its people for the victims of the attack and perhaps a kind of loss of innocence. This was not standard warfare.
For a brief period, the United States was not the bully with a big stick that many third-world countries believed, and instead was offered support and empathy.
From the tragedy, kindness emerged.
There was a tremendous opportunity both here and abroad to unite a country, and major portions of the world but it was not long before suspicion and resentment returned.
Soon there was war with Afghanistan and Iraq and sentiment turned against the Muslim world.
And it did not take long for the partisan divide to show again in Washington D.C.
The lessons of the Sept. 11 attacks were soon forgotten but not the damage it had done to people, buildings and the country.
In many ways it was the beginning of the culture wars that have so divided the country these days.
The divide that began growing after the Sept. 11 attacks, led to another day that most everyone will remember where they were when it happened.
Jan. 6, when the Capitol was attacked in an attempt to prevent the winner of the 2020 presidential election from officially being declared the winner when the electoral votes were counted.
Who can ever forget the sight of the QANON shaman or the confederate flag being waved in the Capitol.
Who ever thought the building would be under attack, not by a foreign power, but from within our own borders, or that the insurrectionists would try to hunt down members of Congress and even the Vice President of the United States.
Few people who saw those images will ever forget them and most will remember where they were when the news feeds showed the violent protest taking place.
In the last 20 years, the United States has changed significantly to the point where it may no longer be possible to have the unity the country had after the Sept. 11 attacks.
Today people cannot even agree on what the facts are.
Former New York U.S. Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan once told colleagues, “You are entitled to your own views, but you are not entitled to your own facts.”
These days some disagree with that statement as alternative facts are acceptable to a large population of the country.
If the people of this country cannot agree on the facts, there is little else available to begin the discussion or to find common ground.
Today everything is a culture war from mask and vaccination mandates to gun rights and religion.
There is little basic understanding of what the country stands for and what its goals are. Instead, it is all about individual rights.
For example, look at the reactions to the Afghanistan refugees fleeing the Taliban. The people criticizing the administration’s inability to safely protect its Afghan helpers, are the same ones not wanting immigrants settled near where they live.
I would hate to think it would take another Sept. 11 attack to wake the country up and realize the enemy is not ourselves.
But that may not be enough today to unite a divided country sitting on a sword’s edge of democracy slipping away.
The 20th anniversary of this country’s worst terrorist attack ought to inspire us to the unbridled potential and resilience we are capable of, and not that it is too late to rise above the ashes of the World Trade Center again.
Garry Rayno may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Distant Dome by veteran journalist Garry Rayno explores a broader perspective on the State House and state happenings for InDepthNH.org. Over his three-decade career, Rayno covered the NH State House for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Foster’s Daily Democrat. During his career, his coverage spanned the news spectrum, from local planning, school and select boards, to national issues such as electric industry deregulation and Presidential primaries. Rayno lives with his wife Carolyn in New London.