"A plane just crashed into the World Trade Center," my then-wife told me as I stepped out of the shower, my head throbbing with a vicious hangover.
"Whaaa…? What kind of plane? Like a tour plane?" I said, still not quite sure what was happening. Then, as we stared dumbstruck at the TV, the second plane exploded with a furious orange fireball into the second tower. We drove to work, listening in stunned silence as planes fell out of the sky, people leapt from buildings and skyscrapers collapsed.
Since that stunning day, life is obviously different throughout the country, but particularly in Chicago. There have been changes on a sheerly logistical level: You have to take off your shoes to get to your plane at O'Hare International Airport, you have to walk through metal detectors to get into federal buildings. Things like that. But there's also a more subtle change: A warm, open-minded couple I know confesses they don't quite feel safe living near a mosque. And Chicago Muslims feel the chill: "Islamaphobia is the new racism," says Ahmed Rehab, the executive director of the Chicago chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. "Since Sept. 11, I've see an influx of cases ranging from the benign to the outrageous." Rehab says Muslims have come into the office for reasons ranging from a woman who had her hijab pulled off in a McDonald's to a Chicago cop who was repeatedly called "terrorist" and, eventually, fired.
And then there's the fear that we're going to see the same thing here. I don't know how many times friends have looked up, alarmed, when a plane has flown overhead: "Is that plane flying too low? Is it happening again?" is always the thought. It's a common notion, apparently: Chicago's Mayor Richard M. Daley has repeatedly asked the government to make parts of the city—particularly the downtown area—a no-fly zone, but as of today, his requests have gone unheeded. ("I wish I had the privilege of worrying about something so far-fetched," Rehab says, "but for me, it's more worrying about the day-to-day discrimination.")
It may seem paranoid, but it seems entirely possible that terrorists could be planning something here in Chicago, the third-largest city in the country. We've seen it happen in New York, and in London (hell, it happened in Oklahoma City). The mind flashes back to, say, the video footage of the 2004 bombing at the train station in Madrid: One moment, there's the mundanity of everyday life—the next, deafening noises, glass shattering, screams, blood, fire. Walking by the Sears Tower—the tallest office building in the United States—and sometimes, you're just struck by its massive scale, the engineering that made this possible. But other days, you remember that seven people were arrested in June for plotting to blow up this massive skyscraper. You envision flames, sirens, bodies plunging. You look around, plotting an escape route. "Where would I run?" you think.
You'd hope that these thoughts would go away, but they don't. And maybe, you'd hope that these fears would make Chicagoans appreciate every moment of peace, that our incessant battles over zoning laws and real-estate taxes are pretty minor, in the big picture. But instead, I think these fears have just made people angry. A massive warehouse by a Chicago expressway has "Sept. 11, 2001—NEVER FORGET" painted on its side. I don't think there's any danger of that happening.