I wrote this piece about 9/11 six years ago, when I was 25 years old. It hasn’t been published until now, on the 19th anniversary of September 11. I hope the reader can find some meaning in it.
I spent the entire day on Thursday, September 11, 2014, immersed in 9/11 specials on the History Channel. I woke up at 7 a.m., and for the next eight hours I absorbed, from various perspectives, the terror, confusion, anger and heroism present on that inconceivably bleak day.
The best part about this collection of shows documenting 9/11 – if there is such a thing as a “best part” about anything concerning what could be described as this generation’s Pearl Harbor – is the sheer abundance of narratives to be told. There are the emergency workers, the politicians, the survivors…not to mention the thousands of family members of the deceased, each with their own unique stories about their loved ones’ final minutes. Some were on the phone with them when the towers collapsed. It makes for heavy viewing, for sure (how many times can a person watch a human leap from the 100th story of a building without feeling nauseous?), but it’s a way to honor the deceased, and a negligible emotional price to pay compared to what those who were in the thick of it experienced that day.
The paranoia wasn’t merely personal. It was the prevailing national mood. It encompassed Americans everywhere, from those poor souls in NYC, to President Bush and his entourage flying around the country on Air Force One, to a 12-year old boy watching the chaos unfold from the safety of a public school classroom.
I was 12 years old on September 11, 2001. I remember sitting in school and feeling an overwhelming sense of dread. I felt certain that a hijacked plane was going to crash into our building. It’s a ridiculous thought in retrospect…the idea that a radical terrorist group would target a middle school in Powhatan, Virginia. But at the time, my fear seemed completely warranted. The worst seemed possible — perhaps even likely, after viewing the horrible footage coming out of New York.
The paranoia wasn’t merely personal. It was the prevailing national mood. It encompassed Americans everywhere, from those poor souls in NYC, to President Bush and his entourage flying around the country on Air Force One, to a 12-year old boy watching the chaos unfold from the safety of a public school classroom. The intensity of that paranoia has subsided through the years, but its ghost remains with everyone who lived through that morning. It haunts us with every knee-jerk negative reaction to Muslims, every lump in the gut accompanying the news of a yet another plane crash.
On that day nearly a decade and a half ago, I remember walking on one of the many trails behind my parents’ house after school, trying to wrap my mind around the unfathomable images I had seen on television. I had led a very peaceful (some would say sheltered) middle class existence up until that point. Aside from the passing of my grandmother, I never had to come to grips with any sort of tragedy, personal or otherwise. Subsequently, I grew up believing the world was a nurturing place. September 11 obliterated that worldview. Not only for me, but for millions of children around the country. The idea that 3,000 innocent Americans had died so violently on a normal Tuesday morning was inconceivable even to the most well-adjusted adult. How could a 12-year old, whose most important concern at the time was youth football, begin to cope with the sight of a person jumping headlong out of a skyscraper? Or two enormous structures collapsing in on themselves like accordions? Or parents bawling into their hands in front of a television set that was showing these horrific images ad nauseum?
The short answer is, they couldn’t. For us kids, it was a morbid glimpse into the heinous realities of adult life and the illogical nature of evil. It was an earthquake that shook us, momentarily, out of our idealistic adolescent sleep. September 11th taught an entire generation of smiling middle-class children that bad people really exist, that evil lives beyond movies and books and television shows, and that true villains make fictional ones seem tame in comparison.
My generation has now graduated to adulthood, but the passage of time hasn’t lessened the impact of that horrible morning. As I sit here 13 years later, engrossed by an entire day of final telephone calls from the now-deceased and stone-faced recollections from the survivors, I’m still just as dumbfounded as to how an event of this magnitude could have happened. This is the sort of stuff you read about in history books, not something that actually unfolds in real time. Sure, I’m now more emotionally capable of dealing with the facts surrounding the tragedy. But there’s no way I’ll ever be able to fully comprehend it. How could anyone?
Evil is illogical. Or perhaps it’s too logical, so wrapped up in the twisted reasoning of its hateful worldview that it can’t consider the other side of the coin. Bin Laden didn’t differentiate between civilians and soldiers. In his eyes, we were all a part of the arrogant American war machine…a four-star general, George Bush, and John Doe were all equally guilty, and therefore equally deserving of Final Punishment. Thanks to Bin Laden’s decision to act on this extreme and narrow-minded view point, the collective American population is living with a permanent ghost.
In a sense, we’re all still that 12-year old kid walking on a trail behind his parents’ house, trying to comprehend how something like this could happen. Being so far removed from the victims and their families, it’s easy to wonder how we could ever make any real difference. How, then, should we show that the events of that day will not fade from our memory?
In a sense, we’re all still that 12-year old kid walking on a trail behind his parents’ house, trying to comprehend how something like this could happen.
Everyone commemorates the victims in their own way. Some will fly flags. Others will whisper prayers. Others still will sit through a full day of 9/11 programming –- no matter how grave it gets – and meditate on the senseless destruction, hoping to gain some sort of deeper understanding about what it was like to be on those planes, or in those buildings, or lodged in that rubble, or spiraling headlong toward death.
So much has changed since September 11, 2001. The idea that America was somehow immune to enormous tragedies (if such an idea ever really existed in the first place) was thrown in a barrel, lit on fire, and rolled down a hill. But with that feeling of collective vulnerability came communion. We pulled together to patch each others’ wounds. In the immediate post-9/11 world, there was an incredible sense of togetherness. To hell with political or religious or racial divide: our status as Americans was our most important identifier, at least for a little while.
As the journalist George Packer wrote in his essay Living Up To It: “People became aware, as if for the first time, that they were not merely individuals with private ends. Whitman’s spirit walked down every street: “What is more subtle than this which ties me to the woman or man that looks in my face?” The embarrassment of strong emotions felt by sophisticated people in peaceful times dropped away, and strangers looked at one another differently. We became citizens.”
A lot has been written about how people went back to being their old, selfish selves a few weeks after 9/11, a phenomenon Packer himself acknowledged later in his essay. The prevailing thought was that we really didn’t learn our lesson, at least in terms of the way we treat one another on a daily basis and where our priorities lie. Decency toward our fellow Americans once again gave way to petty squabbles and trivial lines in the sand.
And this may be true, to some extent. But I can think of plenty of people in my life who exhibit the selfless, altruistic spirit exemplified by Americans in those weeks following 9/11. They’re pretty easy to find, actually, so long as you’re looking for them. And in a lot of ways, continuing to live in a selfless manner – being a true citizen of the United States – is the most fitting way to pay tribute to the 2,977 Americans who lost their lives on that otherwise beautiful Tuesday morning 13 years ago today.