Reflections on a decade

I spent a long time thinking about what, if anything, I wanted to do on the tenth anniversary of the September 11 attacks. Both of the Ecuadorian families I’ve lived with have asked me about the attacks, have told me that they remember that day, that they watched it thinking how terrible and sad it was. I remember that morning with a combination of striking clarity and inexplicable haze. My dad had a business trip scheduled. He got to the airport, was told that all air traffic was grounded, came home and turned on the TV. I remember watching after the first plane hit, when no one was sure what was going on. I remember that I was watching when the second plane hit too, though reflecting on this now, I question the clarity of my memory, now a decade old. The second plane hit before 10am in New York, meaning I would have been up unusually early for school on the West Coast. Still, I remember seeing it, my dad sitting next to me, our whole family silent with disbelief. When the first tower fell, my dad sat shaking his head in his hands, murmuring, “Oh my god, oh my god…” I thought I saw tears in his eyes—to this day, the closest he’s ever come to crying in front of me.
I remember asking my parents if this was a Big Deal, thinking in my head that the events of this morning would come to define my generation, would be a story I would recount to children and grandchildren. I remember thinking I was the perfect age—old enough to understand what was happening, but young enough that someday, I would be part of a select group of really old people, the last generation alive when September 11 happened, and my great-grandchildren would come interview me for middle school history projects. After I had these thoughts, I remembered that people were dying and immediately felt guilty for thinking of posterity before human suffering. In the following years, I would feel validated in my predictions, proud that my ten-year old self understood politics and history well enough to grasp the significance of that moment. I would later sit alone in my room on March 17, 2003, crying silently after watching President Bush’s speech announcing the beginning of combat operations in Iraq. I thought about the bombs falling on Bagdad, and part of me wondered if we weren’t just re-creating the horrors of that September morning for another people in a far-away land.
Soon enough, Iraq faded to the back corners of my mind. I was, after all, in middle school. I was preoccupied with reading, gossip, depression, boys and environmental problems. I let my outrage on that night in March fade into the back of my head, alongside the sadness and gravity I felt on the morning of the attacks.
Since then, I’ve re-opened those emotions a handful of times. Junior year of high school, I did a project for my American history class on pro-war and patriotic songs, and spent a few hours watching and re-watching videos of the attacks set to music. I was transfixed by one in particular, set to the Requiem for a Dream score, which had video of the planet hitting the towers interspersed with photos of people jumping and falling from the burning buildings. What stuck in my head the most was the 911 call made by a man stuck in one of the towers seconds before it collapsed, the call that ends with him screaming, “Oh god!”, followed by the sound of debris falling, and then silence. I watched that video again and again in the name of “research”. I was transfixed. I thought about the people jumping and the man on the phone, imagined what must have gone through their heads. I cried and cried and cried. And then I became numb. After enough consecutive viewings, I couldn’t summon the horror, the sadness, the sense of connection. I compartmentalized, stopped caring. Eventually, I recognized that this wasn’t healthy. I stopped. I didn’t let myself think about it too much.
With all the buildup around the tenth anniversary, I thought about reliving that morning again. I read opinion pieces and commentary about the US’s reaction to the attacks, with several commentators on Al-Jazeera English arguing that the US should have chosen to prosecute the attacks as criminal acts, rather than giving the attackers what they wanted—a war based on ideology with no end in sight. I thought about readings for some of my classes, about discussions I’ve had with friends about the morality of pre-emptive war, about the way our culture fetishizes and immortalizes the victims of 9/11 while forgetting so many other who’ve died because of our foreign policies. I remembered reading Osama bin Laden’s Speech to the American People for my international politics class and feeling disturbed by the clarity of his logic, the legitimate grievances he cited against the American government. I thought about imperialism and Iraq and Afghanistan. I thought about anything but what actually happened on September 11. I didn’t want to go down that rabbit hole again. But then the TV in my house was on, and I ended up watching half an hour of an overly dramatic re-enactment of what happened inside the first tower on that morning, awkwardly dubbed in Spanish, with my host mom. I read a story about the forgotten victims of 9/11—the airport workers, the woman who checked in Mohammad Atta at Logan International Airport, the flight attendant who called in sick for American Flight 11 the night before. I thought once again about the human costs of that morning, the people who are still suffering, who will suffer for the rest of their lives. I wanted to cry, but couldn’t find it in myself. And I wondered why we feel compelled to do this every year, why as a nation we insist on re-opening old wounds every year in the name of remembrance.
So now here I am, once again picturing bodies falling from a flaming tower, silently thanking gods I don’t believe in that I have the option to walk away, largely unaffected, that I don’t know anyone in New York City, that no one in my family is a flight attendant. I want to honor the victims and remember them, but I’m not sure all the TV specials and longform stories are helping anyone heal. As an aspiring journalist, I’ve always believed fervently in the value of holding people’s eyes open, forcing them to look misery in the face and grapple with their inner demons. Now, I find myself wishing we would all close our eyes and say a prayer instead. I can’t help but feel that all this remembering and collective suffering is what begat our ill-fated foreign policy in the wake of the attacks. I can’t help but wish that we would stop picking at scabs, that we would learn to separate emotion from policy. I know that the feelings I had on the morning of those attacks is the most common ground I’ll ever have with so many Americans, and I wish so much that that could be different.
I wasn’t going to write anything about 9/11, because I didn’t think I had anything important to say. I still don’t think I do, it’s just that after thinking about that flight attendant calling in sick and the families of people who chose to jump, I have so much sadness and regret inside me that I had to get it out somehow. I feel guilty knowing how much emotion 9/11 can well up inside me, a feeling that the horrors we’ve inflicted in Iraq and Afghanistan will never hold a candle to. Mostly, I sit silently, still trying to decide if it’s ok to close my eyes when so many would keep them open, knowing that it does no good, knowing that it just keeps your heart aching for longer. I don’t know if I can cry anymore, so I pray instead, hoping that for something as important at this, God won’t mind that I’m an atheist. I pray for forgiveness, for healing, for remembering without reliving. And then, I pray once again to forget.
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