By JOSEPHINE MENDEZ
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. – Sept. 11, 2001, is a day that is remembered by Americans and people around the globe in different ways.
Those who were alive when terrorists sent airliners smashing into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a field in Pennsylvania 15 years ago today recall the shock and horror they felt as the carnage was repeated incessantly on TV news broadcasts. That moment, when people can recall the exact time and place they first heard about the tragic event that killed 3,000 people, brought with it a sense of American vulnerability that most had not felt in their lifetime.
Younger people, either not born yet or just young children at the time, only learned about what happened through history books or secondhand accounts, but that knowledge combined with news of more recent deadly attacks in America and elsewhere have embedded a sense of fear that many find hard to escape.
As the worry about terrorism persists, some have felt a growing mistrust of those around them, while others have felt the sting of suspicion. And shadowing many people are concerns about how safe the country is from future attacks.
However, in interviews with several Tri-State residents young and old, a common theme was the importance of keeping alive the memory of what happened.
Seventy-two-year-old veteran Fred Buchanan is one who believes Americans should never forget 9/11.
Now the post adjutant at American Legion Huntington Post 16, he said he was at Tee 10 at the Esquire Country Club in Barboursville when his daughter called, telling him that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center in New York.
“It’s one of the days that everyone remembers where they were, just like the Kennedy assassination or the Challenger Space Shuttle disaster,” he said. “When a bad thing happens, you remember.”
Fifteen years later, Buchanan said many who don’t have the firsthand knowledge of what happened have become numb to the tragedy.
“They don’t have that initial shock and feeling that our country is under attack like we did 15 years ago,” he said. “That’s why it’s so important to teach the younger generation about it. If we don’t, we are bound to repeat it.”
One fact that really struck him recently was that incoming high school ninth-graders have to be taught about the Sept. 11 terrorist attack because they were not alive when it happened.
Eleventh-graders in Steven Freeman’s Advanced Placement history class at Huntington High School, who are ages 16 and 17, said their first true understanding of what happened on Sept. 11, 2001, was in second and third grade.
“I think our teachers thought kindergartners and first-graders were too young, but you have to learn about it at some point,” Brooks Anderson said.
“When I first learned about it, I don’t think I really understood the impact it would have. You hear the stories from adults, but it felt just like learning about another piece of history to me.”
Bailey Gillian said she was only a toddler when it happened and can remember that her mom cried all week.
“My dad is a soldier and my mom knew he would be deployed,” she said. “… I could feel that something was wrong.”
Buchanan said it is everyone’s duty to make sure that kids born after Sept. 11 don’t just learn about what happened from history books.
“It means more and will stick with them longer when someone tells them rather than for them to read it in a book,” he said. “By teaching the kids, it is also a way for us to remember what it was like and to not take what we have for granted, because your life can change in the blink of an eye.”
Growing up in a post-Sept. 11 world, several students at Huntington High said the sad truth is that the terrorist attack did not change the way they viewed the world because it has always been the way they have viewed the world.
“This happened way before I had any concept of pretty much anything, so I grew up in a world that has been a little bit more fearful of terrorism and a little bit more cautious in terms of airline flights,” Phillip Murphy said. “That is my norm, and it really makes me wonder how things would have been different if Sept. 11 had not happened.”
Gillian said it’s sickening to think that the fear of terrorist attacks is now an everyday norm for her generation.
“We may not have been old enough to really remember Sept. 11, but we saw what happened at the Boston Marathon and San Bernardino,” she said. “This is the world we know now.”
Fellow student Katie Fulks said that with social media and other new-age technology, people her age are inundated with so much information that it can sometimes be hard to see the significance of some of the seemingly smaller-scale terrorist attacks because they appear to be so frequent.
Buchanan agreed, saying it’s a harsh but accurate truth.
“Whether it’s world events or politics, the instant availability of news has changed the world to the point of sensory overload,” he said. “In World War II or Korea, it would take a week before you could read about what happened in the news. Now it takes about 30 seconds.”
Buchanan said this heightened awareness has numbed the public reaction to such events.
While those feelings are understandable, Buchanan said the same is not true for the veteran community.
“We tend to remember and hold on to those memories in order to make sure that they are not glossed over,” he said.
“We remember Pearl Harbor every year. We remember Sept. 11 every year. We just remember. We don’t let it get into the back of our minds and get buried.”
In terms of how his perspective for those who lived through Sept. 11 has changed, Buchanan said, sadly, right or wrong, people are now apprehensive of those who are different, especially if they are of the Islamic faith.
“We used to take people for granted that they are our friends and will not harm us, but our element of trust to a certain extent has been betrayed and we are a little more leery of people who are different,” he said. “A lot of that is misinformation or lack of familiarity, but because some people can’t understand it or identify with it, there is a lack of trust.”
Dr. Majed Khader, a professor at Marshall University and a trustee with the Muslim Association of Huntington, said it is unfair to assume that all Muslims are in some way associated with the terrorist attacks.
“Islam is a religion of peace, but unfortunately that name was misused and hijacked by terrorists as well as enemies who would like to create such troubles for our people,” he said.
In the years since Sept. 11, Khader said every time a terrorist attack occurs, he has to hope people do not find a way to connect it back to Islam or American Muslims.
“Every day is a challenge for us,” he said. “We never had to defend ourselves or our religion before. As American Muslims, we have nothing to do with what is going on with these kinds of terror activities and we try to tell the general public we are like them – we condemn these things.”
Although Khader is originally from the Middle East, he said he grew up in the United States, moving to America in the early 1980s.
“My youth, my life, everything was spent over here,” he said. “Huntington became my home in 1989, and I have been here ever since. Just like other Americans, that day was shocking and a terrible day for me and other Muslim Americans.”
Khader said it’s difficult to be in the routine now of defending his religion when a terrorist attack occurs because he never had to before.
“I have been in the community for over 27 years, and for people that know me and my family, they are very supportive,” he said. “But sometimes with strangers, they like to apply all the negative things they have heard about this culture, religion and ethnicity to you.”
In the hopes of changing this negative perception, Khader said he has spent years visiting local organizations and churches as well as writing to newspapers in order to inform the public about what American Muslims are really like.
While each individual was affected differently by the events of Sept. 11, a common feeling among them is the desire to feel safe and secure.
“I feel like in theory the extra measures we have gone through to help prevent similar tragedies should make us feel safer,” Murphy said.
“But going back to the media, it’s hard to know what to feel when it seems like these attacks are happening, albeit on a smaller scale, all the time.”
Khader said in order to feel safer, it will take more than just relying on the government.
“I have trust in our authorities to keep us safe, but we also need to be very careful, too, and do our part as citizens,” he said.
Buchanan said he isn’t sure if the world is actually safer or if people are just more realistic with the fears.
“After the attack happened and it felt like we were under attack, people here started questioning if Charleston or Huntington would be next, but now we have become more realistic that an event like that won’t happen here again, but we still have to be wary that it could,” he said.
Eleventh-grade student Rileigh Smirl said she feels safe in the knowledge that an event the size of Sept. 11 will likely not occur again, but on a smaller scale there is still the fear that a shooting could occur at a local school.
“My parents tell me they used to practice bomb threats in school, and now we have active shooter drills because that is something that we are used to and might have a real chance of happening, and this is the best we could do to stop it from happening,” she said. “It makes the whole idea a lot more real.”
Her teacher, Steven Freeman, said Americans have become more attentive in order to ensure that the country is a safer place than it was 15 years ago.
“Part of the problem was that we had lost our vigilance and in some ways became complacent,” he said. “We had lax airport security and lax security at schools, but the very fact that we are vigilant was one positive outcome. One thing I tell my students is that you cannot fix problems unless you address problems.”