Sept. 11, 2001..Like everyone old enough to remember, I can recall where I was when my wife, Jayne called and said, “Can you get to a television?”
A plane had just crashed into one of the World Trade Center Towers in New York City, she said. I wondered whether it was a small plane gone dreadfully off course. Then I rushed from my office to the nearby studios of the Wingate University TV station in time to see on CNN the second plane crashing into the other tower.
After that, it’s mostly just impressions and emotions. Fear: You mean they’ve crashed a plane into The Pentagon, too? Anger: Who are these monsters who want to kill Americans? Confusion: Why did this happen and what happens next? Jayne and I sitting in front of the television crying at one-heart rending story after another about loss and grief.
I also have a small memory of the week post 9/11 that came back as I drove past our football stadium to campus this morning. And in some ways it’s more instructive than the big, overwhelming ones.
We had a home football game that Saturday, and an area high school band was playing the pre-game show and an ROTC unit from that school presented the colors. The mood was somber and no one talked over “The Star Spangled Banner” as it was played with gusto by the high-schoolers.
In our modest little stadium the fan experience is much more intimate under normal circumstances than what you get at the larger Division I temples of the game. But the anthem that day was especially meaningful, Francis Scott Key’s words about searching for the symbol of our country flying amidst the chaos of battle having some resonance. For the first time in a long
time, I paid attention.
Some context is necessary here. It’s not an exaggeration to say that I’ve heard the national anthem a few thousand times in my lifetime, as many sports events as I’ve covered. And I believe I’ve heard it sung every way humanly possible — close-harmonized by a female barbershop quartet, belted out by a 5-year-old boy who made up in volume what he lacked in knowledge of the words, delivered by singers channeling everyone from Marvin Gaye and Mariah Carey to Pavarotti and Tim McGraw.
The good, bad, on-key and off-tune, until it was easy to take for granted. And I had come to believe that such frequent repetition devalued the song, welcoming the inclusion of “God Bless America” and “America the Beautiful” at sports events as more relevant to our time and the state of the nation.
Five years on, I have to say I believe that again. I’ve reverted to my pre-9/11 stance of standing respectfully and every once in a while singing along, but not really thinking about it.
That’s sort of what’s happened to the rest of the country, recent polls tell us. Many of us have lost that surge of patriotism and the sense of all being in this together as one nation. Not counting those who serve or have served or who have loved ones in Iraq or Afghanistan, we haven’t been called on to sacrifice much or to turn our ideals into action. (Bill Maher’s line comes to mind: “Fly a flag from your SUV. It’s literally the least you can do.”)
It’s easy to display a glib and facile patriotism and I’ve always been uncomfortable with the way the sports world sometimes encourages that. (In fairness, sports organizations honor our country with some real moments too, as on Sunday when the Carolina Panthers used their satellite facilities to allow families of service men and women in Iraq to talk to their loved ones here.)
The mythology of love of country and sports values of teamwork, fair play, etc., however, often hide a more complicated reality. See Gary Smith’s article in the most recent issue of Sports Illustrated, recounting the death of NFL player turned Army Ranger Pat Tillman in a firefight in Afghanistan in 2002.
The free-spirited Tillman was at best an unconventional patriot, but he was moved to action by the events of Sept. 11, enlisting to serve with his brother. And the first accounts of his death in combat was the perfect account of American heroism — until the U.S. Army’s reluctant investigations revealed that he died needlessly from friendly fire.
That’s the way a lot of things are in he world after the 9/11 attacks — filled with ambiguities and uncertainties that we should have the freedom to work out for ourselves. The American people should always remember this day and honor those who were lost. But no one should be told how they have to do that.