The summer before everything changed

What do you remember of the days leading up to 9/11?

About the author:
Jaime O’Neill is a freelance writer who contributes often to the CN&R. He lives in Magalia.

It’s fairly likely you can recall where you were when you heard the news about jetliners crashing into the World Trade Center on that morning 10 years ago when the world changed. It’s much less likely, however, that you remember much about the days leading up to that cataclysmic moment, the waning days of summer 2001.

President Bush is on vacation at his ranch in Crawford, Texas, as Sept. 11, 2001, draws near, but he makes appearances at a Target store in Kansas City on Aug. 21, speaks to the students at Crawford Elementary on Aug. 23, and gives newsmen a tour of the ranch on Aug. 25. On Aug. 16 he issues a statement in support of faith-based initiatives. On Aug. 14, he speaks about character development to people gathered at a YMCA picnic.

We will later learn that red flags are flapping throughout the intelligence community during the summer of 2001, and that worries are growing about a planned attack on U.S. soil. Those fears are included in the presidential daily briefings in August of that year. They are largely ignored.

“Hanging by a Moment” is a surprise hit for a contemporary Christian band called Lighthouse, and Nelly has a hit with “Ride Wit Me.” Christine Aguilera is heard on all the Top 40 stations singing “Come On Over Baby,” and Jon Bon Jovi has a hit with “Say It Isn’t So.”

Patricia Cornwell, John Grisham, James Patterson, and Stephen King are the authors who provide most of the books people take to the beach with them that summer.

Under the heading of déjà vu all over again, there are apes at the cineplexes that summer, just as there will be in a summer a decade yet to come. Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes is just one of a raft of remakes and sequels that hit screens in 2001, issuing out of a Hollywood factory that seems largely bereft of new ideas. Jurassic Park 3, Rush Hour 2 and The Mummy Returns are a few of the escapist movies people are watching in the weeks leading up to an intrusive new reality from which it will be much harder to escape.

Enron, a Texas-based energy company, is in full meltdown mode, the first financial collapse of a century that is destined to be riddled with such failures throughout its first decade, all of them traceable to chicanery and insufficient regulatory oversight.

Silvio Berlusconi assumes office in Italy, Pervez Musharraf becomes president of Pakistan. Timothy McVeigh, a homegrown terrorist, is executed for the Oklahoma City bombing that had taken 168 American lives just six years earlier. The disappearance of congressional aide Chandra Levy dominates cable news, as do shark attacks off the coast of Florida.

In the summer before 9/11, no one in the general population of the world yet owns an iPod, let alone an iPhone or an iPad. You could have bought Apple stock for around $20 a share that summer. A decade hence, Apple will be selling for 20 times as much.

People who embark on a road trip in the summer of 2001 will pay about a dollar and a half for a gallon of gas. Filling the average gas tank will usually cost less than $20.

If you take a trip by plane that summer, you aren’t asked to take off your shoes or go through a scanner before boarding. Most Americans have never head of Al Qaeda or Osama bin Laden. There is no Department of Homeland Security.

Very few Americans have ever heard of “enhanced interrogation,” the euphemistic phrase for torture. “Shock and awe” has not yet become part of the national dialogue, nor has “regime change” entered most people’s consciousness.

Justin Bieber is 7 years old that summer. Lady Gaga is about to enter high school. Michelle Bachmann is serving her first term in the Minnesota Senate, and Barack Obama is virtually unknown outside of Illinois, where he is serving in his state’s Senate. Sarah Palin is mayor of Wasilla, Alaska.

Several hundred young American men and women destined to die in Iraq are about to enter their senior year of high school. Hardly any of them know the name of the country where they will lose their lives.

When that year begins, the U.S. is projected to show a budget surplus at year’s end. In August of 2001, unemployment hits 4.9 percent, the highest rate of joblessness in four years. In that same month and year, 57 percent of Americans approve of President Bush’s performance in office, an approval rating that will spike as Americans unite behind their leader after the 9/11 attacks.

CIA chief George Tenet visits the president at the ranch in Crawford in August, but he will later testify that no discussion of threats to U.S. security took place at that meeting.

Some 3,000 Americans, many of them New Yorkers, are living out the last days of the last summer they will ever know.