I'll never forget walking out on Sept. 11, 2001, into my dorm room's common area. 

Jess, a Long Islander who lived in the quad across the hall, sat stunned on our love seat. She watched the World Trade Center's North Tower smolder on television, after a fuel-laden airliner pierced its glass and steel frame.

Somebody screwed up, we reasoned. I went off to the primatology class where I worked as an undergraduate assistant.

At 9:03 a.m., a second jet hit the South Tower, as 30 psychology and anthropology students looked on via wall-mounted television. 

Classes were canceled. 

SUNY Oneonta is a few short hours from Manhattan. As such, downstate kids, looking for a reprieve from the bustle, represented a huge proportion of the student body. 

Young women cried in dorm hallways, frantically trying to reach their fathers who worked at the Trade Center over jammed phone lines. Those who got through tried to navigate siblings out of Midtown amid the chaos. 

We watched men in suits jump to their deaths to escape the flames. The buildings collapsed. When information started moving, the death toll hit home.

"That guy down the hall, doesn't look like his sister made it out," someone would say. "She worked in insurance."

Oneonta State, and all of New York state, went dark for a week.

A mix of upstate Albany suburbanites and city kids composed my circle of friends. Everyone knew someone who suffered a loss. 

Escape was necessary.

And that's exactly what we did. I took them to my hometown in the Adirondack mountains, where we disappeared into the woods for days. No watches or electronics permitted.

We drank ourselves blind morning, noon and night. We created an alternate reality, one without religious radicals and pending war. We lived off of booze, canned beans and fresh-caught trout. Peace was available on that small, remote pond.

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A changed world greeted us when we emerged days later. Military recruiters soon became staples on campus. Their fliers filled the school's garbage cans. Shrill anti-Islam rhetoric was unavoidable. The Bush administration went about building its now-debunked case for the Iraq invasion. 

Resentment of the saber-rattling swept across campus. Twenty-first century pseudo-hippies marched around aimlessly, signs in hand, because that's what their parents did decades earlier. Without a draft to solidify dissent, their movement was rudderless. 

Most of us just sneered and stared at the ground. Ours was a generation with no rallying point. The flag-waving and jingoism washed over us. 

Trillions of dollars and thousands of American lives later -- not to mention countless lives in the Middle East -- and a culture war has divided Americans.

Conservatives called liberals weak. Liberals blasted conservative hawkishness. Incessant "hero" worship reminds the the non-uniformed of who the "real Americans" are. 

Terrorism is the excuse to track our phone calls. Islamophobia is a badge of honor for the nationalists. The Islamic State runs roughshod over the region and the power vacuum the U.S. created. 

Fourteen years ago, Americans were fused by an assault on our ideals. But the aftermath has driven us further apart than we were on Sept. 10, 2001.

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Jon Alexander is opinion page editor at The Southern. He can be reached at jonathan.alexander@the southern.com.


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