Documentary filmmaker reflects on 9/11 and how it relates to the age of COVID-19

‘Events like 9/11 and the COVID-19 pandemic are loud and scary, but the deeper undercurrents of history are often more powerful in shaping our lives'

By Steve Gamester, producer of 9/11 Kids

I can’t stop looking at pictures of deserted spaces: an octopus of empty highways in Wuhan; St. Peter’s Square without throngs of tourists; Times Square billboards screaming at people who aren’t there. Images of emptiness are the selfies of the COVID age.

This pandemic reminds me of 9/11, when other shocking images were burned into our collective consciousness: planes smashing into buildings; stockbrokers covered in ash and blood; then-president George W. Bush sitting in front of a group of school children. The last one always stuck with me. Maybe you remember it. The kids were reading The Pet Goat. President Bush just sat there shell-shocked. Someone had just whispered into his ear: “America is under attack.”

9/11 Kids, the documentary

For years, I wondered about the kids from that classroom in Sarasota, Fla. There was something about the juxtaposition of childhood innocence with the gravity of the moment that struck me. Only six or seven years old, those kids became immortalized in one of the first viral videos of a new age. I wanted to find out what happened to them, how 9/11 impacted them and, by extension, what they could tell us about the post-9/11 world.

Florida teacher Sandra Kay Daniels, with schoolchildren (now adults)

Florida teacher Sandra Kay Daniels, with the children she taught almost two decades ago, now adults

The documentary film 9/11 Kids delves into the lives of six of these students, who are now in their mid-20s. It also features the remarkable Sandra Kay Daniels, the teacher who was sitting next to President Bush that fateful morning. Her description of the day is unforgettably chilling, and the connection she still has to her former students — whom she still calls “my babies” — will warm your heart.

I have spent my entire adult life studying history. It was my major at school and I’ve spent 20 years making history documentaries on a wide variety of topics. But 9/11 Kids stands out. The experience of getting to know those individuals taught me valuable lessons — lessons that come to mind as I sit at home in isolation and consider how the COVID-19 era will change my life and our world.

The big picture behind the big story

I’ve been thinking about an interview we did with Natalia, one of the 9/11 kids. Her 18-year-old brother was shot four times by police a month before I met her. A single mom with two kids, she was helping to pay his legal and hospital bills while running a business out of her home. We pressed Natalia on how she thought 9/11 changed America. She grew impatient and snapped: “I watch the news. I keep up. But really, I’m just trying to figure out how to feed my kids.”

The truth is, none of the 9/11 kids had much to say about the legacy of that day. Other forces had shaped them more: institutional racism, domestic violence, the digital economy, attitudes toward immigrants, access to power and wealth, family dynamics. I tracked them down to talk about 9/11 and then watched in amazement as the story went elsewhere.

There’s a lesson in that: events like 9/11 and the COVID-19 pandemic are loud and scary, but the deeper undercurrents of history are often more powerful in shaping our lives. Right now, the entire world is obsessed with COVID-19 in the same way we were obsessed with 9/11 almost 20 years ago. We should think about how we responded back then as we contemplate how we are responding now.

After 9/11, the United States and its NATO allies, including Canada, spent trillions of dollars on foreign wars and building a gigantic security and intelligence apparatus. Many of the world’s best and brightest minds were devoted to the task. Was it the right investment? I think the answer is no. We attacked the big, scary thing in front of us. We mostly ignored the deeper forces shaping us.

Globalization is the dominant force in this stage of human history. It has been for several decades now. The movement of people and ideas, capital and goods, terrorists and viruses at lightning speed around the globe is shaping the world we live in. It led to 9/11 (a cultural and political backlash) and COVID-19 (a biological one).

The most serious consequence of globalization is unfolding all around us and on a much larger scale than 9/11 or COVID-19, and that’s climate change. Most of the 9/11 kids live in Florida.  Fifty years from now, will it be under water?

Let’s put out the COVID-19 fire, but let’s not forget the fires that burned in the Amazon and Australia just a few years ago. That’s the bigger story shaping our lives.

Watch 9/11 Kids.

Available on CBC Gem

9/11 Kids

documentary Channel