The week that was
With war looming, Chicoans struggle to return to a semblance of normality
Chico may be more than 3,000 miles from the fallen buildings and rubble of New York City and Washington, D.C., but aftershocks from last Tuesday’s terrorist attacks are still reverberating in Chico’s peaceful, tree-lined streets.
Everything, it seems, is different now.
Only hours after the Sept. 11 attacks, the city hoisted dozens of flags on the streetlights along The Esplanade. Soon after, hundreds of Chicoans followed suit, raising their own flags at home and at businesses all over town. Suddenly, American flags are everywhere. There are small ones hanging half-mast on car antennas, metal ones pinned onto shirts and lapels and big ones flapping in the beds of pick-up trucks. They’re sewn onto T-shirts and drawn on baseball hats.
And suddenly they are a hard commodity to buy. Collier Hardware sold all its flags the day after the attacks, and the extra shipment that arrived Friday was gone that same morning. The store now has a waiting list that extends into October for people wanting to buy a flag.
“We’re just taking their names and the time and date they called,” a saleswoman said Monday afternoon. “We’re getting calls every five minutes from people wanting a flag.”
The same went for chain stores like Wal-Mart, Kmart and Target, which reported that even they couldn’t order enough flags to keep them in stock.
With racial tensions suddenly boiling across the country, Chico and university police were worried that Chico’s many Middle Eastern-born residents might fall victim to hate crimes, but both agencies have reported quiet, uneventful weeks.
Khaled Dudin, who immigrated to Chico from Palestine in 1988, said he initially feared being singled out for violence but has been “so impressed with the way all of Chico has pulled together.” Dudin, a Muslim who attends services at Chico’s Islamic Center, said the vast majority of the messages left on the center’s answering machine have been supportive of the local Muslim community. He emphasized that Islam is a peaceful religion not represented by the “fanatics” led by terrorists.
“This is a religion that has rules as to how you should walk down the street, that forbids you from even spitting on the sidewalk where a plant or animal could live,” he said. “We don’t want to hurt anyone.”
At candlelight vigils and prayer services all over town, calm—and a return to normality—seemed to be what everyone was asking for this week. Church services were packed Sunday, and in at least one congregation people stood in the aisle for the service. Many cried.
Tuesday night, a week after the attacks, about 300 college students gathered in the university’s Free Speech Area in an attempt to defuse some of that simmering prejudice. They held candles, burned incense and rang bells to pay tribute to the thousands of victims of the attacks.
It was supposed to be a peaceful vigil and march, but it turned out to be less than peaceful when political science professor George Wright (see Essay, page 14) blamed the Bush administration for plotting to kill innocent Muslims in the Middle East and plunder the area’s rich oil supplies.
“He’s got a political agenda,” someone yelled. “We’re supposed to be here for the victims.”
His remarks and the response to them turned the peaceful rally into a bit of a shouting match. Several people snuffed out their candles before walking away, muttering. Wright stepped out of the circle in which he was speaking, and the remaining crowd started walking toward the Downtown Plaza Park with candles in hand. As they walked, some sang songs like “This Little Light of Mine.”
Everywhere this week, it seemed, there was talk of terrorism. It was the main topic of conversation at coffee shops and on campus, in classrooms and at the dinner table. The attacks seemed to have startled Americans into real and probing conversations about American foreign policy and war, diplomacy, the mysterious Taliban, revenge and the elusive role of forgiveness in all of this.
In short, Gary Condit’s sex life will never be real news again.
Military recruiting offices were busy this week, though. Sgt. Timothy Pellet, a recruiter at the Army’s local office, said that he’s seen a full 50 percent increase in the number of people asking to become soldiers.
“It’s been busy,” he said. “But not all of those will qualify to enlist.”
The same went for the Air Force recruiting office, which reported a “slight increase” in recruits last week.
“We always get a lot of recruits in this area,” said Air Force Master Sgt. Scott Brooke. “I wouldn’t expect a huge spike until the bullets start flying, so to speak.”
With the country’s airports suddenly going into an ultra-high-security mode, Chico Municipal Airport followed suit. After closing right after the Sept. 11 attacks, the airport re-opened on Friday with a limited flight schedule. Passengers were asked to arrive at least 90 minutes early to allow time for additional security measures, and curbside parking—even at the tiny Chico airport—was newly prohibited.
Even Lake Oroville has been affected by the terrorist attacks. Rangers announced that for “security reasons” the lake is now closed to nighttime boating.
While Chico State University, like the rest of the CSU system, closed after the Sept. 11 attacks, most other schools remained open, though wholly changed, that day. At many Chico schools, teachers were asked by the district not to use televisions in the classroom that day, but many reportedly did anyway.
News & Review intern, Misty Harrold, observed teachers at Pleasant Valley High School too upset to teach, instead showing coverage of the attack and talking about it, even in classes like chemistry. When the school pulled the plug on the TVs, some teachers crafted makeshift antennas out of wire.
At other campuses, including two junior high schools, the news coverage was also shown.
Over the weekend, downtown Chico still had its share of late-night bar-hoppers and street partiers, but for the most part the behavior was relatively subdued, the hooting and hollering conspicuously absent in the wee hours.
In the bars and taverns, rather than watch baseball and football, drinkers kept tabs on the 24-hour television news reports, and instead of arguing umpire calls and game plans, they discussed how America should best respond to the attack.
Overall there seemed to be a common bond, the sharing of an unspeakable tragedy that had in some way touched us all. And if only for a few days, people in Chico seemed a bit more courteous, a bit more sympathetic and a bit more willing to listen to others and in turn share their own feelings.