17 Years

I’ve always wanted to write out my memories of this day, and I’ve never wanted to write out my memories of this day.

But my daughter, born years afterward, has never known a country not shaped by this event, and what she’s taught in school is thin at best. It’s my job to teach her. It’s my job to remember.

And…it seems to me, when I look back, that there’s a dead-straight line between what’s happening today and that morning all those years ago. We were broken that day, and how much of it was the shattering of a thin veneer and how much was bone-deep destruction remains to be seen.

All memories are my own, and like all memories may be imprecise here and there. I’ve fact-checked where I could.

But this story is personal.

I remember the bright white of the email window that morning, and a message from the company’s New York office: “New York will be closed today.”

What? I thought. The whole city? I suspected nothing. Why would I?

We like to think catastrophe will herald itself, will give us some warning, even just a subliminal animal “run away” signal. It doesn’t.

Figuring I ought to check the news, I brought up a browser to look up the Boston Globe. It wouldn’t load. Not so unusual, really; in 2001, a lot of web sites were still struggling with balancing traffic. And our internal company network was, as so many still are, prone to hiccups.

And just like the users of today, I sighed in mild frustration, and persistently hit that reload button.

I don’t remember precisely what I saw first. Something about a plane hitting a building. I felt a pang of sorrow and worry; an accident, of course. I hoped it wasn’t too bad. I’d grown up in small planes; I had a picture in my head of something little, like a 182. Always hoping for minimal hurt, minimal pain.

And as it all unraveled, it became unbelievable.

A friend called me on the phone. She was still home, having heard the news before she left for work.

“I’m watching the local news now,” she told me. “They’re reporting there may be as many as six planes still in the air that they can’t contact.”

There weren’t, of course, but that was one of many pieces of misinformation repeated as reporters scrambled to inform the public about something we were all beginning to realize was a major disaster.┬áBy the time my friend and I were speaking, it was all over, but we didn’t know that.

One of the rumors was that there was a hijacked plane bound for Boston, where AA11 had originated. I called my parents, frantically begging them to leave the city. They refused. Roads out of town were a parking lot; there was nowhere for them to go.

Our office building was near an air force base. A target. The man I was dating at the time–who I would later marry–came into my office, and we stood for a while, arms around each other. “I’m so scared,” I remember saying.

I live my life planning for contingencies. I had nothing for this.

I went home at lunchtime. I don’t remember why. I remember seeing Dan Rather on television as the towers came down. I remember thinking I thought it couldn’t get worse.

It might not have been Dan Rather. I might have seen a replay of that report at another time. But I was waiting for the conclusion, for the event to be done and in the past and something for us to pick up and cope with, and thinking that conclusion would never come.

It never has.

Everyone was so polite on the road. In Massachusetts, this is a striking thing. I remember thinking I’d know everything was back to normal when people started driving like assholes again.

By that Saturday, the stereotypical Masshole drivers were back out in force. But I was wrong about things being back to normal.

My partner talked to his daughter afterward. She had been at school. She was angry. “They wouldn’t tell us anything, and they wouldn’t let us call our parents,” she told him. “All the teachers were crying. We thought we were at war.”

Some facts that tend to get lost:

  • None of the 19 hijackers were from Iraq.
  • After the attacks, Canada took in an unprecedented number of grounded flyers, and looked after them for days.
  • The vast majority of governments worldwide, including in the Middle East, condemned the attacks.
  • The Department of Homeland Security and the Patriot Act were both created in response.
  • Warrantless surveillance was made far easier, including surveillance of US citizens.
  • Guantanamo Bay detention camp was established in 2002, after then-President Bush had declared a “War on Terror.” Despite widespread humanitarian concerns, this camp has been maintained by politicians of both major parties.
  • Those of us over 35 who grew up in the US did not grow up in a surveillance state.

Afterward, the world grew strange.

Some people tried to understand what had happened, the motivations behind it. That there were international politics at play is certain; that the US has never had clean hands there is also true. But trying to understand one single coordinated attack in relative isolation has always seemed to me the same sort of simple-minded approach as thinking it’s possible to prevent every bad thing from happening in the world. The world is complicated, and so is cause and effect.

Some people wanted retribution, to strike back so strongly no one would dare attack us again. We find them, we kill them, we crow over their corpses; this is the human song of perpetual war, and it seems our natures are steeped in it. But fundamentally it’s a reaction of fear and denial, of wanting a guarantee of safety that has never really existed. It leads to deeply ugly clannish othering.

And 17 years later, here we are.

Several weeks after the attacks I received a copy of my college alumni magazine. One of the passengers on AA11 was an alumna. 28 years old. I didn’t know her, had never heard her name, but when I read about her I burst into tears and wept for a long time.

One of the things that happens when you have children is you get used to being asked “Why?”

There are two ways to handle this as a parent: honesty, or the dodge. The dodge is sometimes appropriate, if it’s something that doesn’t really affect your kid, or is too complex for them to deal with at their age. Honesty, because it sometimes involves admitting that you don’t really know, is a less comfortable route.

I don’t know how to tell her what it was like to live in a world where we weren’t at war. I don’t remember what that was like. The US has been at war for her entire life, and she sees the effects of that: many of her classmates have parents in the military, and sometimes they don’t see them for a year or more.

Many of her classmates are also children of immigrants. One thing she understands instinctively: all politics are personal.

My mother always told me the pendulum swings back and forth. It’s hard to look at the news these days and think we’re swinging anywhere but over a cliff. But when I look at my daughter, and her friends, and the things they talk about, and what matters to them and how informed they are, I feel better. When I look at the young politicians running for office–and how many of them are dominating the primaries–I feel better. When I see previously moribund politicians of my own generation finally galvanized into acquiring a spine, I feel better.

We have not healed. We may never heal.

But maybe enough of us will remember who we really want to be.


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