By Karl Terry: PNT Managing Editor
Five years after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the event Americans call 9/11 is still affecting people’s lives. According to local historians, the event is probably still in search of its place and perspective in history.
“It really made us aware that we are vulnerable to the outside world in a way that we haven’t been since the War of 1812,” said Don (Doc) Elder, history professor at Eastern New Mexico University. “We really had grown into complacency.”
Elder recalls that he didn’t see the attack coming. Looking back now he says there was evidence that it could happen, but like most other Americans it didn’t register with the historian until it occurred.
Elder, who is also a local radio personality, calling play-by-play for ENMU and Portales High School sports, was a morning cohost on the MIX Morning Show in 2001. He was doing his normal live radio show on Sept. 11 when he got a call from his wife, Janine, telling him there was a strange accident in New York City where a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. The show went on with Elder wondering to himself about the significance of the event, until his wife called back to say a second plane had crashed. At that point Elder said he began to question what local media’s role was in the unfolding tragedy.
“What do you do? What do you say at that point?” he asked. “I didn’t want to create undue panic, but I felt I had to tell listeners they might ought to turn the television on and see what was happening.”
Through a special arrangement with Portales Municipal Schools, Elder also teaches history at Portales High School. He says students approach history differently now. They have a need to know why people reacted the way they did, leading up to and during the event.
Elder says he can also really tell the difference in the experience of 9/11 between the high school students and the much older, non-traditional ENMU students.
“For the kids that are in high school, it’s still a personal event,” Elder said. “They can tell me what they were doing and about their sense of anger (from the event).”
Elder says the older history student remembers the end of the Cold War and doesn’t seem as affected by the ordeal.
For Joe Blair, a World War II veteran and local history buff, the experience is at a completely different level and was more of a wake-up call for the country.
“How could it happen here,” Blair remembers asking himself? “I think we were probably too lax on our security.”
Blair says 9/11 and Pearl Harbor don’t compare in his book. The world was different, and people before World War II knew immediately what they would face.
“It’s a different generation from Pearl Harbor,” Blair said. “It doesn’t seem to soak in to a lot of people . They just don’t seem to understand what could have happened.”
Blair says he and his World War II coffee buddies mostly agree that the Bush administration has done a good job of preventing further attacks.
He also believes the tightened security and the sacrifice of some personal freedoms is a small price to pay for peace of mind.
“The fact that we haven’t had another bombing is no accident,” he said.
Elder said he knew once it was uncovered that al-Qaida was involved, America’s target for retaliation would be Afghanistan. He said connecting other things such as Iraq he didn’t foresee. He says he doesn’t necessarily disagree with the course of action the Bush administration has prescribed since the attacks.
Elder says he feels the Patriot Act is probably a fact of life in America — at least for awhile. He likens the loss of freedoms put into place after 9/11 as a result of the act to President Lincoln’s suspending habeus corpus during the Civil War, which allowed the military to arrest individuals to preserve the peace, and to the internment of innocent Japanese-Americans during World War II. He believes people may be willing to put up with the loss of those freedoms for as long as 20 or 30 years in order to secure their safety.
“I see the United States really being changed forever,” Elder said. “I don’t think we’ll ever be able to look at our borders and travel the same way.”