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Ben Rhodes was 24 years old and working on a city council campaign in Brooklyn on Sept. 11, 2001, when a hijacked plane hit the World Trade Center. He stood on the street, watching with a group of other New Yorkers as a second plane struck and, then, as the first tower collapsed.

"I just remember walking home and thinking, 'My life is going to be different because of this; I feel a need to be a part of whatever happens because of this,'" Rhodes says. "I didn't know exactly what that meant, but I knew that I was in a fork in the road that was going to lead me in a new direction."

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Here's a couple of memorable moments from the 2012 presidential campaign.

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Personal essayist and cartoonist Tim Kreider admits unabashedly that the longest relationship of his adult life was with a stray cat who became his companion for 19 years.

"There's just a certain reservoir of affection we all have that needs to be expressed in the literal sense, and so we will lavish it on pets," Kreider says. "Those are less complicated, less demanding relationships than human relationships."

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Growing up in rural Idaho, Tara Westover had no birth certificate, never saw a doctor and didn't go to school. Her parents were religious fundamentalists who stockpiled food, mistrusted the government and believed in strict gender roles for their seven children.

As a girl, Westover says, "There wasn't ever any question about what my future would look like: I would get married when I was 17 or 18, and I would be given some corner of the farm and my husband would put a house on it and we would have kids."

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross, who's off today. If watching President Trump and listening to American political discourse these days makes you feel something's gone wrong, our guests today will tell you it's not your imagination. Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt have spent years studying what makes democracies healthy and what leads to their collapse. And they see signs that American democracy is in trouble.

Christian Picciolini was 14 years old when he attended the first gathering of what would become the Hammerskin Nation, a violent, white-power skinhead group. Looking back, he describes his introduction to the group as receiving a "lifeline of acceptance."

"I felt a sort of energy flow through me that I had never felt before — as if I was a part of something greater than myself," he says.

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Peter Morgan, creator of the Netflix series The Crown, has an unusual take on Britain's royals. He says, "Let's just stop thinking about them as a royal family for just a second and think about them as just a regular family."

Like any family, Morgan says, the House of Windsor has its share of shame, regret and "misdemeanors of the past;" and, of course, "no family is complete without an embarrassing uncle." In the case of the Windsors, the uncle in question was King Edward VIII, who abdicated the throne 1936, paving the way for Elizabeth to become queen in 1952.

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Decades before NFL player Colin Kaepernick took a knee during the national anthem to protest police treatment of African-Americans, boxer Muhammad Ali roiled white America with his 1967 resistance to the Vietnam War draft.

The boxer had converted to the Nation of Islam a few years earlier, and he explained his resistance to the war by saying, "I ain't got no quarrel with them Viet Cong."

After Marine Sgt. Thomas ("TJ") Brennan was hit by the blast from a rocket-propelled grenade in Afghanistan in 2010, he suffered a traumatic brain injury that left him unable to recall much of his immediate past — including, at times, the name of his own daughter.

"When I got blown up, it erased a lot of my memories," Brennan says.

On May 25, 1978, a package exploded at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., injuring a security guard. It was the first of a series of 16 bombings that would occur over the next 17 years, killing three people and injuring many others. The suspect in the case, a shadowy figure who frequently used the U.S. mail to send his homemade explosives, became known as the "Unabomber."

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Tales from the American West are marked by heroism, romance and plenty of cruelty. Among those stories, the saga of the Donner Party stands alone — a band of pioneers set out in covered wagons for California, and eventually, stranded, snowbound and starving, resorted to cannibalism.

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