Editor’s Note: The essay below was written in 2001 and appears in the self-published book, Through Our Eyes: A Tapestry of Words and Images in Response to September 11. Printed and distributed in 2002, the book was the result of an independent, volunteer documentary project organized by a journalist and several friends. The author’s bio was written in 2002 and has not been updated.
Few people are as smart and fun loving as Paul Michael McKnight. The 52-year-old retired lawyer, better known as Mike or Dad, runs a flag and sports memorabilia business with his wife, Cindy, in Phoenix, Arizona. Their merchandise is sold on the Internet and in an open-air market. Mike, the son of Jeanne and Paul and brother of Michelle, who died in 1961, grew up in Anderson, Indiana. He has three kids with his first wife (Greg, Jenna and Jamie) and is currently in the process of adopting Cindy’s daughter, Cassie. This man works hard – but lives for vacation. He’s traveled throughout the USA and has visited Canada and Mexico. He’s also a big sports fan and writes, “How about those World Series Champion AZ Diamondbacks?!” Mike was working at home when he first heard about the attacks. He wrote his essay Oct. 4.
Tuesday morning began as most of my weekday mornings. Brush my teeth, take my blood pressure medicine and allergy pills, plug in the coffee pot, play with the dogs, check my Ebay sales … You know. Routine. Ho Hum. Another day, just like most of the days that make up my comfortable life.
Except for a few special days. Some wonderful. Some horrible. Graduations. Marriages. Births of my children. Birthdays of those I love. Deaths of pets. Deaths of friends and family. Death of my sister. Marital breakup and Divorce. All these special days involve others I care about, but they all involve my narrow circle of family.
My world was narrow, and safe. I kept it that way. Be an observer of, a commentator upon, the tragedy and pain all around us. But don’t become a participant in others’ troubles. Don’t get too close to anyone and don’t get too involved in others’ lives, or their needs and pain will become mine. Just be a good person. Don’t hurt anyone. Let people live their lives the way they want, so long as they don’t hurt others. My world was simple, and safe.
THEN CINDY SCREAMED!!! My heart dropped. It was a scream of horror. I ran into our bedroom expecting to find one of our pets dead, or a letter that a loved one was dying, or … It was far worse! Cindy motioned to the TV screen and I saw a sight I will never forget. The World Trade Center had a gaping hole in it, and flames and smoke were pouring from the hole, which the commentators said had been caused by a commercial jet.
What a horrible accident, I thought. I was sure that hundreds of lives were lost. I felt relieved that it was not a death or other tragedy in my family. AND THEN I WATCHED THE WORLD I KNEW CHANGE FOREVER. I watched, live and unedited, a second jet slam into the second tower.
IT WAS NOT AN ACCIDENT!!! THIS WAS THE FIRST STRIKE BY SOME ENEMY!!! But that is not possible. We are the USA. We are invincible. I must be dreaming – no – having a nightmare. But I was awake and this was no dream. The safe world I thought I lived in was gone. No more thinking that it can’t happen to me. No more observing and commenting and thinking I am a good person because I stay out of other people’s lives and I think good thoughts.
People need help. Real help. America and the world need help. Freedom needs each of us to stand united and fight for all that makes freedom so dear. Not just my good thoughts and hope that everyone can have a good life.
I am trying to live in this new world as an active participant. I am trying to do more than just think good thoughts. Cindy and I have donated some money and merchandise to disaster relief organizations. I have tried to help the wife of a NY firefighter who lost most of the men in his firehouse in the Tower collapse (by giving her a flag to replace the one destroyed in the storm shortly after Sept. 11, when she was unable to find one anywhere in NY). We have purchased stock in two airlines. I will be flying to Indiana soon. These things are so small.
I will do more to participate, to help, to fight for freedom. I don’t know what, yet. I have ideas, but time will tell which ideas become actions, which ideas have yet to come to me, and what events will present themselves as opportunities to do my small part. I have done so little before and since Sept. 11.
I came of draft age during the Viet Nam War. I got lucky and was not drafted into a war that was not my war. I was afraid to serve. I did not see how it made sense for my friends or me to go die on the other side of the world in a war the U.S. was not trying to win. I had difficulty understanding how my father could try so hard to get into the military during WW2.
I now understand. All those history books, war films, etc., had never gotten through to me. Sept. 11 got through to me! Sometimes you really do have to fight for something much bigger than your family and yourself. Every day you need to take action to make the world a better place.
I will not let the passage of time blur the memory of Sept. 11. I will not let time return me to the uninvolved observer I was. I will help. I will participate. I will try to be all that my family needs, and I will open myself to strangers. If I can just make one stranger’s life better, that is more than I have accomplished to date.
And on a bigger scale, I will do all I can to fight for freedom. I will do my part. Freedom is worth fighting for.