I sit in a small airport, watching a handful of older veterans greet soldiers returning from Afghanistan. The troops have spent a brief layover at this terminal in Bangor, Maine, making cell phone calls, buying scratch-off lottery tickets, and watching Hollywood news on a TV monitor. The veterans offer each one a handshake and a heartfelt thank-you as the soldiers march off to their plane and I queue up for my own flight, bound for New York City, where this story began 10 years ago.
On the morning of September 11, 2001, I was at a parking lot in lower Manhattan retrieving a car when the first of two hijacked jets flew overhead and crashed into the World Trade Center. I didn’t see the impact—the attendant was handing me the keys at that instant—but I heard the colossal ka-boom!, turned, and saw flames and smoke pouring from the gouged North Tower 15 blocks away. Stunned, I called my wife, Pamelia, at our apartment nearby. She joined me on a street corner shortly before the second plane roared low across New York Harbor and disappeared into the South Tower in a fireball. As we watched in disbelief, the terrorist link now clear, I voiced the obvious: “The world just changed.”
I wasn’t referring to travel, though in a metaphorical sense I could have been. The destinations of many lives around the globe changed that day. Likewise the paths of governments. But the attacks did reroute travel itself, those briefer journeys that alter perspectives and connect 7 billion people on a small planet. The simple act of going somewhere—planning a trip, boarding an airplane, walking around in a foreign land—wasn’t so simple anymore.
No terrorist could stop U.S. citizens from exercising what Jan Freitag of Smith Travel Research calls their “inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of travel.” Yet over the subsequent decade, 9/11 forced all of us to reexamine those values. With its scans and searches, the humiliating airport security check became the crucible in which we had to confront questions of life and liberty, of discrimination and freedom, of war.
Even as Pamelia and I were taping up the edges of our loft windows to keep out the acrid Ground Zero smoke that day, the bottom was falling out of the travel business. I could understand why. I had traveled to more than 30 countries on five continents and had always been eager to go anywhere; now I was jittery. Though I’ve never been afraid of flying, I found myself morbidly wondering during flights how I would react to hijackers. I squeezed the armrest a little tighter on takeoffs and landings.
But I held to my belief in the importance of travel for broadening my mind and perspective, despite the uncomfortable moments it can produce. In 2003, days after the United States invaded Iraq, my wife and I squirmed when a cabdriver in São Paulo, Brazil, asked us to tell our country’s president not to start wars. But at the end of our ride that same driver, a smiling older man, got out, hugged us, and wished us well. New friends we met in Athens, Greece, and St. Petersburg, Russia, invited us to their parents’ homes for big dinners. Both were wonderful experiences, even though at the latter meal, a seven-course feast with vodka toasts, none of the other family members spoke a word of English.
Those moments of connection stayed with me as 9/11 drifted further into the past. As the years went by I found myself focusing less on fear than on frustration at delays and new fees imposed by struggling airlines. The big stories of the decade in the travel world now seemed to be online booking and fierce competition.
And yet, the postattack slump had helped fuel air travel’s discount era. And those flight delays? A major cause was an antiquated air traffic control system that the U.S. government put off paying to replace, partly because of deficits swollen by two 9/11-sparked wars.
By late 2008, Pamelia and I had moved to coastal Maine, and I was able to telecommute to my job at a Manhattan-based magazine. Which explains how I ended up in the Bangor passenger lounge this past February, watching old soldiers embracing young ones and finding myself unexpectedly choking up. After a decade of slowly distancing myself from 9/11, I was due for a reminder: The events of that September morning are still with us, still transforming lives in this country and others. Sometimes we need a trip to the airport to realize it.
Illustration by Sandra Dionisi
This article was first published in September 2011. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.