I covered the Rapid City flood early in my career, the worst disaster I personally witnessed in more than four decades as a news reporter.
The sudden, torrential rains that flooded through the Black Hills valleys on a June weekend in 1972 killed 238 people and caused millions and millions of dollars in property damage. Twenty years later when I wrote what the reporting business called a look-back story, some of the images from the original reporting days remained as vivid as if they’d happened the afternoon before.
Although some of the memories have dimmed over the intervening years, others are still as fresh and awful as they were nearly half a century ago when the flood occurred. One of the things that I’ve never quite shaken is how many innocent, unaware people died in such a short time. The fatalities were local folks enjoying a mild, if rainy, late-spring evening, and they were tourists, just passing through on a vacation from the cares of the workday world.
The terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C., on Sept. 11, 2001, are perhaps the worst disaster experienced or witnessed by a couple of generations in this country. Nearly 3,000 people died in the attacks. Thousands more suffered physical injuries. An untold number of people, not only in the cities where the attacks happened but also across the rest of the nation, suffered wounds to the heart and the soul.
Like those who died in the Rapid City flood, the victims of the terrorist attacks were innocent, unaware people just going through the routine of a typical Tuesday. They were office workers and they were tourists, visitors to the big city or the Pentagon – folks not bothering anyone but for some sick reason made targets by evil people. They were also police and firefighters and first responders, the good men and women whose careers are focused on bringing aid to other human beings in times of trouble and need. They hurried to help on Sept. 11, 2002, and it cost them their lives.
Today (Saturday) is the 20th anniversary of those terrorist attacks. George Bush was president when it happened. In the years since, Bush has been succeeded by Barack Obama, then Donald Trump and now Joe Biden. Four presidents have served in the time since the attacks, a time of heightened security, heightened anxiety and years of fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq in response to the attacks, in what we’ve come to know as the War on Terror.
In the past several days, various news outlets have done stories and information packages about the day of the attacks. They’ve talked about those who were lost, and they’ve talked about those who lost family members that day. They’ve also talked about those who have grown up never knowing a world in which 9/11 meant anything except the day that changed us all, that changed us in ways that maybe we don’t yet fully understand.
I think 9/11 frightened this country to its core. I think our fear has made many of us less open, more hostile. I think many of us, unable to take revenge on those who planned, financed and carried out the attacks, became more hostile to those among us who came from the same countries as the terrorists. That’s natural enough, I suppose, but it hasn’t been a good thing.
I also recognize that I’m not the one to judge. Out here in rural America, half a continent removed from the sites of the attacks, I watched and reacted to what happened, but I did it from a safe distance. It didn’t seem safe at the time. Who knew where a group of evil fanatics might strike? But I wasn’t, not then and not since, at the places where the horror happened. I wasn’t then or in the two decades of fighting since, one of the men and women who actually did the fighting. I’ve been a spectator, a distant spectator.
That being the case, I think the best way I can look back to honor the victims of 9/11 is to simply be still and remember.