For me, remembering the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist hijackings and attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon means remembering my friend Chris Atencio. My Newport Beach, California neighbor and close friend at the time, it was he who woke me up that morning to tell me what was happening (he didn’t own a television, but had been alerted shortly before by a telephone call from his mom).
We watched the news together that morning, though the only live images we saw were of the collapse of the World Trade Center’s North Tower. Sixteen months later, overtaken by a burst of patriotism and purpose, Atencio joined the U.S. Army. Rising to the level of captain, he saw service in Korea, Germany, Iraq and Japan. In the summer of 2013, the army honorably discharged him. Six months after that, Chris killed himself.
But before all that happened, before U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq killed many, many thousands of people and shattered both states’ civil societies, I wrote a story in 2002 for OC Weekly about how Orange County commemorated the first anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. Really a series of three dispatches, the story shows that many people in Southern California, though separated from the attacks by a year and a couple thousand miles, still exhibited some pretty harsh emotions over them.
We like to think nowadays that the immediate reaction to that day’s destruction was national (even to some extent world) unity, and while that certainly happened, it was long over by Sept. 11, 2002. And why not? The 9/11 attacks happened because of politics, and politics are very often divisive–especially in one of the most conservative counties in the U.S.
Anyway, I’m reprinting that 2002 story here because OC Weekly‘s online archives don’t go back that far:
HOW OC REMEMBERED SEPT. 11
By Anthony Pignataro
Sept. 20, 2002
RICHARD NIXON LIBRARY, SEPT. 7, 11:15 A.M.
Several hundred people stand and sit by the Nixon Library parking lot in the blistering sun. Thirty-six U.S. flags in three sets of 12 are arrayed before them.
Some are firefighters. Some are Boy and Girl Scouts. And some are wearing shirts that say things such as “Raise a glass for duty and humanity” and “Support your local Soldiers for Jesus.”
They’re in the parking lot, quietly waiting for a caravan of police and fire vehicles escorting two huge flatbed trucks. They’re quiet because a Nixon Library official asked for “a moment of silence” to “pause and reflect.”
Preceded by Highway Patrol motorcycles and a black Cadillac Escalade limousine, the flatbeds carry World Trade Center scrap. The first hauls a New York hook-and-ladder fire truck wrecked in the WTC collapse; the second flatbed holds 18 tons of rusted scrap steel.
For a while, the only sound is camera shutters snapping. Then the speeches begin. The San Bernardino officials who brought the WTC junk to California for a future memorial speak first.
“Everywhere they went, crowds gathered,” says disgraced, outgoing San Bernardino County District Attorney Dennis Stout, describing the scrap’s journey across the U.S. “People wanted to see and touch the steel.”
The people in Yorba Linda were no different, but the officials keep speaking. Last up is Peace Corps boss and bankruptcy-era Orange County Supervisor Gaddi Vasquez. He notes the sweltering heat and promises to be brief, but isn’t.
“I didn’t know anyone on Flight 92,” he says to a crowd of sweating, irritable people hungry for the touch of memorial steel. “But they are all heroes.”
Only after Vasquez finishes are the people allowed near the wreckage. The fire truck has broken windows and a few flat tires. A torn and dirty American flag is tied to its rooftop ladder.
People file slowly past the fire truck but linger around the beams. They reach up and touch them, then hold the pose while friends and relatives snap photos. Having already been viewed and touched by many people before today, the beams are covered with graffiti:
• “We love America The Morrellos”
• “Robert P. Long Ironworkers Local 433”
• “God Bless The Wilkersons”
• “How does our BOOT feel in your A** United America”
HYATT REGENCY IRVINE, SEPT. 9, 7:15 P.M.
About 600 people jam a hotel banquet hall. Some are in jeans, but many are dressed in suits and skirts.
Near the entrance is a bar serving bottles of Budweiser, Miller Lite and Heinekin beer. Next to that are stacks of Ayn Rand Institute literature, including free excerpts of Rand’s books. Some people are seated against the far wall. Hotel staff members are still bringing in dozens of chairs when lecturer Dr. Yaron Brook begins his speech, “Why America Is Losing the War.”
Brook tells the attentive audience that America’s response to the Sept. 11 attacks has been “abysmal” because the nation’s leaders refuse to admit we’re in an “unmistakably ideological war” against “militant Islam.” He says they also refuse to “show the world we are committed to win. At most, we have shot some missiles into the desert.”
According to Brook, the enemy, led by the “nihilist” Osama bin Laden, wants to reestablish a “Muslim Empire in the Middle East.” America, “a shining sun of capitalism,” is “an affront” to such an empire,” he says.
“What has made America so pathetically weak?” Brook asks rhetorically–before quickly answering. “Our professors.” College professors “condemn science,” sport “stale Marxist nonsense” and want to “thrust American culture into the gutter. Altruism and moral relativism have crippled America’s ability to defend itself. American professors, because they cripple us intellectually, are our own worst enemies.”
We were attacked last year, Brook says, because we are “moral cowards” who “appease” our enemies. The 1991 Persian Gulf War showed America to be “weak” because then-President George H.W. Bush “rejected our moral right to act unilaterally and sought the approval of others.”
“Iran, not Iraq, should be our primary target,” says Brook, who adds that our “obsession” with civilian casualties “has needlessly prolonged this war. We shouldn’t grovel before allies. We should bomb ruthlessly. We are at war. We dare not show compassion. Civilian casualties are inevitable in war. They are the responsibility of Osama bin Laden. Saudi Arabia is comparable to the Taliban. We should take out these regimes by any means necessary. We should systematically assassinate the terrorist leaders. We should grind our mortal enemies to powder.”
At the end of the speech, which lasts about an hour, a dozen or so people walk out. The rest–several hundred at least–give Brook a thunderous standing ovation.
HUNTINGTON BEACH PIER PLAZA, SEPT. 11, 6:40 P.M.
Standing at the edge of Pacific Coast Highway, a little girl in blue smiles brightly. She’s waving a sign that says, “Peace,” and giggles every now and then when a passing car honks.
Not quite 30 people–some teens with green hair, some older folks–stand around her. Their backs are to the ocean and the setting sun. They also have hand-painted signs–”Know Justice, Know Peace,” “Stop the INSANITY Now!” and “An eye for an eye makes the world blind.” They’ve been out by the pier since 6 p.m.
“I love these people,” says clean-water activist and Huntington Beach City Council candidate Joey Racano, enthusiastically waving a colorful World Peace Flag.
“Yeah,” I say. “Wish there were more of them.”
Racano pauses and stares at his feet. “I know what you mean, but you can’t think that way. You have to be positive. Remember this is the most conservative city in the most conservative county in California.”
One activist holding a cloth flag displaying a large peace sign who hadn’t heard that conversation comes over. “It’s a good group we’ve got here,” he says. “Several hundred… in spirit.”
Occasionally, a guy driving by will flip off the activists. They respond by laughing or blowing kisses. A blond girl on a bike riding by yells “Go to New York and hold that sign. See how long you last.”
Across the street and in front of Jack’s Surf Shop, three counter-demonstrators take up position. They yell and gesture at the peace activists. One of the guys, who looks about 20, holds a crudely drawn cardboard sign reading, “Nuke Iraq Cut Your Hair.”
Photo of the World Trade Center towers in 1990: Edgar de Evia/Wikimedia Commons