The New York skyline is an American symbol, and today it is shattered and empty. Three days after two hijacked jetliners brought down the World Trade Center, smoke and soot continue to stream from the collapsed buildings. News programs continue to rebroadcast unbelievable footage, from every angle, of the two jets missiling into the buildings and the explosions that followed. Pictures that show downtown Manhattan as a moonscape instead of Wall Street fill our newspapers. We are obsessed by the images that have filled our television sets during the past 72 hours. For as long as these images remain fresh, we will wake up with a gut feeling of fear.
Commentators and editorialists say that we, as American citizens, will forever split history into "Before" and "After."
Are we brave enough to do that? To look back and figure out how unprepared we were for terrorism? And to imagine that we will change in the future? Would it be too much to ask of University students to consciously split what our lives were "Before" and what they are "After?"
On any given day last week, did you think about Afghanistan? When you talked to friends, did the ideas of fundamentalism or evil come up in conversation? No, little of this was talked about.
But in the immediate aftermath of Tuesday's attack, people wondered aloud, "How could anyone do this?" Now entire classes at Carolina are dedicated to student discussion about America's next step. Some say Retaliate. Others want Punishment. There are those who want to Wait.
And those who want to hit now, start up a war. As a nation, current polls say that more than 80 percent of Americans support retaliation of some sort. Or in Gen. Norman Schwartzkopf's words, "find the bastards who did this."
If we seriously compare our conversations from last week to the ones mentioned above, what has changed? Simple - society has lost its innocence. The news media has put a face on evil: Osama bin Laden.
If you want an idea of how much has changed, just think back to the beginning of school, when many students arrived by plane at Raleigh-Durham International Airport. What will those same students think about when they board a flight home for Thanksgiving weekend?
"Before" September 11th, 2001, would anyone think that a couple of knives and box-cutters could cause a catastrophic collision, killing thousands?
Last week, America seemed invincible. Now, our symbols of strength have collapsed at the hands of a few fanatics armed only with knives. The Pentagon, the heart of our military, is a burnt-out shell. New York's financial district, the true center of capitalism, is a pile of rubble. The New York Stock Exchange remains closed, and NASDAQ's headquarters, located at One Liberty Plaza, were Thursday night at risk of collapsing, literally. American strength took a direct hit.
Either directly or by degrees of separation, we all know someone who has been affected by this tragedy. On Tuesday morning, I woke up to the phone ringing. My roommate's father called to say her sister was alive and safe, having worked two blocks away from the World Trade Center.
I found my roommate on campus and after frantic phone calls to hear her sister's voice, we joined the mass of students surrounding the Union television. It was an eerie sight. An entire room of young people were ashen-faced with distress.
"After" the attack, shocked and grieving members of our community joined together Wednesday for a vigil on Polk Place. It was nothing short of amazing to gaze across the thousands, and know we were there to mourn together. Could anything "Before" have brought us together?
What may be the scariest part of "After" is the thought of returning full circle -- back to conversations about football and gossip. The most important part of the "After" is not forgetting. Yes, we must move on. But we must do it in the same manner that brought us together Wednesday on the quad.
When we close our eyes and replay the sight of the twin towers collapsing in our minds, we can also think back to 10,000 of our neighbors standing together, united on the Quad. Our nation will rebuild, and with this spirit of togetherness, we will be stronger than ever.
Rachel Hockfield can be reached at email@example.com.
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