The Disconnect of September 11
When I first heard that something had happened, I was sitting in first period German class. I was thirteen. The principal came on the PA system and said something cryptic about that we may have heard the rumors, but there was no incident and we should go about our day. I turned to my seatmate and asked “What happened?” He did not know either. That was the last time I talked to him, even though we spent the next four years together in the same tiny high school academic program.
I had to wait until seventh period math to get more information. For about twenty-five minutes my teacher told us about how two planes had crashed into some buildings in New York I had never heard of. I don’t recall if she mentioned the other two planes. She generally downplayed the significance of the event, and it was not until I got home and walked in on my mother, riveted at the television, that I felt any sense of urgency from the adults around me.
She filled me in. Most of the channels were turned to New York, though by 3:30 Mountain Time the towers had collapsed and there was little to see but graywhite smoke. I talked with my mother. She was shaken. They replayed the planes hitting the towers, and I felt a jolt of shock and a brief sickness in my stomach. They replayed them collapsing, and I was filled with dread. They interviewed a journalist who had been saved by a firefighter as she ran from the first collapse. There were still smudges of dirt and dust on her suit; I was riveted. But mostly I was bored. It seemed like there was nothing more that I could learn at the moment, so why bother to pay attention? Not that I did not understand that people had died and were still in danger, but there was no use fretting about it in Colorado. I was also annoyed because that evening the plan was to go to a pottery painting store and make a bowl for my mother’s birthday. Obviously that was not going to happen.
I never fully grasped the significance of September 11 and how it would change my world until I was living in that world. My reactions were superficial – I felt a sting of tears as I watched President Bush address the nation that evening, but I never felt anything lasting, except cynicism. The evidence of patriotism around me – suddenly everything was red, white, and blue – and the discussion of security and the wonders of freedom seemed like short-term reactions to a big event. I assessed everyone else’s reactions by my own, and since mine were superficial, so were theirs. It did not surprise me when people stopped giving blood, stopped signing up for the military, stopped putting out their flags. I was even cynical about the hysteria over terrorists that sprung out of nowhere – I knew that Al Qaeda was terrible, of course, and should be hunted down, but I remembered that the last terrorist who attacked the nation was a white American, Timothy McVeigh. However, I was also angered by evidence of a lack of patriotism. I seethed when a Japanese exchange student was THE most respectful student a year later as taps, a moment of silence, and the national anthem played in my high school. I felt like rebuilding Afghanistan as we wanted it to be was a just cause, and I was angry at the media for quickly ignoring it. I was especially angry at my government for undermining Afghanistan and our troops there as it made ready to invade Iraq, no matter the opinion of the masses in this democracy. I was angry that racists took the opportunity to attack Muslim-appearing Americans, that they allowed their fears to translate into prejudice. At the moment of would-be national unity, I was angry that we were not living up to American values.
The truth of the matter is that an attack on my country did not touch the security of my world. I was thirteen, living a thousand miles away, and only just starting to pay attention to something other than myself. My first independent political interest was the 2000 elections, but since then I had not looked around me. September 11, 2001 occurred as I was at the threshold of childhood and adult awareness, and the safety of childhood was too close for me to see the event as it was. The actual event of the four planes crashing was not the significant part of September 11, other than the impact of the lives lost on those individuals’ communities. Rather the true significance of the day was the reaction of everyone else. Think of September 11 as a hole in the middle of a spiderweb, with all the pieces of silk around it as the reactions. The hole organizes the way the web is shaped, but it is the silk that holds the web and affects every other bit of silk. To the people of the Cold War era, such an event was what they had feared for their whole lives, yet it could only be an introduction to the ultimate attack: nuclear. (Perhaps that is why Bush’s false evidence of WMD’s in Iraq worked so well.) They had also found their next big enemy, the one they were expecting ever since the Soviet Union collapsed. Even to younger adults, the vision of a powerful, impenetrable nation with a government smoothly working to protect us was gone. Everyone now had a stake in national security, not just the slightly more paranoid conservatives. The event was fairly straightforward, and I was too young to see that the outside responses mattered more than the event itself. I knew that this, like Pearl Harbor and the Kennedy assassination, would be one of those events where everyone in the nation would remember exactly where they were when it happened. I did not know that they would remember it because it marked the exact moment when everything changed.
I did get an inkling of what the adults around me were feeling. Sometime later that month, or in October, I remember watching CNN at my father’s house. The coverage went back and forth between the military’s movements in Afghanistan to (entirely favorable) discussion of the Patriot Act to speculations about who was sending anthrax in the mail. I thought to myself, “It seems like we are under attack from all sides.” Yet my inner sense of security remained whole and undisturbed. This is always the problem of the child with a secure childhood: she feels safe and in control, yes, but she has little idea about how the real world works. She is likely to be taken by surprise.