Everyone's been posting reflections on the fifth anniversary of '9/11' for the past few days. I have held off because my own experience of that day was pretty much like most other people's if they didn't have relatives at or near one of the attack sites: watching the television, dumbfounded, as the towers collapsed, and then trying to find other people to talk to about the situation. The rest of the day is pretty much a blur.

But -- and here's the point I want to make -- the day wasn't '9/11' yet. It didn't become the emblematic icon that it is now until a few days later. At the time, it was just crazy, an event that seemed rather incomprehensible but which people were all trying to make sense of in various ways. Things were unsettled, in the precise and technical sense of the word: almost everything was up for grabs, including how the United States would respond and what the implications would be for the regulation of daily life. They didn't settle down until (I would say) over a week later, on the 20th, but I'll post about that (probably both here and over at the Duck) next week.

For now I want to note another five-year anniversary, one that doesn't get a lot of media coverage: on this date five years ago, the university was evacuated because of a bomb threat. As far as I know they didn't find anything, and nothing blew up, but that day the campus was cleared while bomb squads searched the premises.

And it was chaos. I arrived at the Metro station to discover a large crowd of people, students mainly, milling around and talking excitedly. There were a lot of rumors about what was going on and about why the campus shuttles weren't running; the words "terrorist" and "bomb" ran through the crowd like magic talismans handed around as fast as they possibly could be -- as though the only rational response to the situation was to repeat what one had just overheard, pass it on, pass it on. I had a cel phone -- one of the few (remember that five years ago cel phone penetration in the US was nowhere near the level it is nowadays) so I called the information line and got a recorded message saying that the campus was being evacuated. I decided (after calling my wife) to walk the mile from the station to the campus to see if I could help; after all, I was faculty, and maybe I could do something as a representative of organizational authority.

As it turned out they had no idea what to do with me. There was no contingency plan in place for evacuating the campus due to a bomb threat, and certainly no plan for utilizing faculty-members who suddenly showed up on the scene offering to assist. After some negotiations I ended up in a church across the street with a bunch of students, presiding over a discussion about security and threat and Islam -- a discussion that both exemplified and expressed the fears of of the young kids (yes, kids -- 18, 19 years old) who were suddenly faced with the necessity of abandoning their dormitories and their possessions (several were in bathrobes) perhaps never returning to them if there really had been a bomb. Maybe it even helped to allay some of their concerns. Maybe the sense of normality -- here's a professor holding a class discussion, albeit in a church with students more frightened than usual -- helped to clam people down. It helped me, that's for sure, as it gave me something to do and helped me feel somewhat useful.

As it turned out, there was no bomb (as far as we were ever told) and everyone made it back to campus fine. But it was the first encounter that most of us (I'd wager) had ever had with such things up-close and personal. 11 September was images on the TV for me; 13 September was a more direct experience.

No comments: