The events of September 11th will always be inexorably linked (in my mind anyway) with the events of several years prior that took place at a Columbine, Colorado. If I were five or six years older I may have felt the same about the Challenger disaster, but (as it is) I am too young to remember that tragedy first hand. These were the events that unfolded for me (and for millions of people my age) on television screens in classrooms, on the kinds of devices that were just out-of-date enough to be available in public schools, and were often strapped by a kind of seat belt to a rolling metal dolly that can only be found in Audio Visual departments and some hospitals.
Looking back, it still seems surreal that I experienced that horrible day they same way that I learned about The Cosmos from Carl Sagan, but we as a class (or a school, or a country) processed those images of confusion and of horror as a community, and that was important. I have never talked to anyone my age (In fact, I don’t remember talking to anyone, period) that watched those events alone. Some moments are simply too large for one person to comprehend without support.
I was in high school in Redmond, Washington on that particular Tuesday, and our school began at seven o’clock Pacific Standard time (10 am EST), and I was out of district, meaning that I had to wake up by about 5:30am (or about ten minutes before the first plane struck the North Tower) and start my commute at around six am (or right about the time second plane struck the South Tower). I learned of the worst attack on American soil in my lifetime from a Seattle alternative music station morning drive-time DJ – it was initially hard to believe. I think it was hard for everyone to believe until they saw the impacts and the aftermath and the always-put-together nightly news anchors with mussed hair and nothing to say.
By the time I had parked and walked the block or two to school (I wasn’t yet an upperclassman, and therefore unable to park on campus), most classrooms were already filled, some spilling students out into nearly vacant halls. Most mornings, the majority of the student body hung out in the large common areas, usually near vending machines, but this morning even the students who tried their best to look the least interested in academia, were sitting quiet and present at desks fifteen (maybe twenty) minutes before first period. There was no prodding everyone just instinctively knew it was what must be done. I don’t know why (maybe it was because I knew the kinds of students who wish to study extra calculus lessons before school) but I watched the continual loop of collisions in the Advanced Math classroom. Much later, I saw the footage that had gone out live (and then, thankfully, was pulled) of people jumping from the buildings, and sometimes I get all of those visuals mixed in my memory, but it did seem like Peter Jennings and the ABC News Team must have shown the second plane hit the tower ten times in the short span that I watched.
The first tower collapsed five minutes before the first period bell at Redmond High School, and even the teachers didn’t know how to proceed. I took my book-bag and headed to my own classroom, but was quite certain that we wouldn’t be discussing a great deal of English Literature on this morning. The class was half-full, and the teacher told us that our room’s television didn’t get reception, so she was going to put on a VHS copy of a Shakespeare production, and that if any student wished to watch the news in another class, they would be free to do so. Most of us left to stand along the back wall of the Calculus room. By second period, I (and everyone else, I suppose) had learned of the crash at the Pentagon and was hearing rumors of a fourth hijacking (students who are raised in Microsoft’s backyard are adept at using the Internet for news, but had also learned of its spotty reliability.)
I didn’t learn of the crash of Flight 77 in a Pennsylvania field until forth period after lunch. By that time, nearly all students were attempting to have as normal a day as could be possible, and were attending their regularly assigned classes (mine was, fittingly enough, US Government). We watched the news with the volume low and discussed all of the names and terms that all Americans learned on that day. That afternoon al-Qaeda entered the US lexicon and has never really left.
Once school had let out, the flag was already at half-mast and many students lingered. It felt like we had all learned of the terrible event together and thus, were reluctant to break that tenuous bond (Or maybe we were just too dazed to do much of anything.) But other than the students who needed a ride on the big yellow buses, nobody went home. In the cafeteria, I talked with a group of friends about our futures, about that of the country. We wanted to do something, anything, but (for the live of us) we couldn’t figure out what it was.
After school, I watched more of the news (I think everyone did), and called a group of friends to answer my one pressing question: Do you go to soccer practice on 9/11? It turned out that I did. And so did everyone else on my team. We had a distracted lesson, and at its completion the sun had gone down. I don’t remember how I slept, but I was a teenager, so I probably slept fine enough.
Conventional wisdom says that the Sept. 11 attacks were the defining moment of my generation (or an instigating event, or some such thing), but at the time it just felt confusing. And in many ways it still does. Compared to the Columbine massacre, the motives behind the attacks felt murkier and farther away. I may not be breaking new ground, by claiming that Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold acted out of anger when they decided to open fire on their faculty and fellow students, but that anger wouldn’t have been present if the boys didn’t ultimately want to fit in. And every teen can identify with that desire.
In contrast, I did not understand the fanaticism required to plan and execute such a cold-blooded act as 9/11. I have learned a great since of both the history of Western interference in the Mid-East and of Islamist extremism (and it was an extremist element that carried out the attack), but I can’t say that I yet understand the motivation. On an intellectual level I can connect the dots, but I certainly don’t empathize on a gut level. And maybe that’s a good thing, but it makes tragedies like this seem all the scarier. I just don’t get it. And I probably never will.
I think that many people who had not attended high school in a good many years, felt similarly to the Columbine events – the media sure seemed to. Largely diverse subsections of students were lumped together as “others” even if those groups were wildly dissimilar. To be clear: Harris and Klebold were not Goth. Just as Al-Qaeda was not Islam. Eric and Dylan may have worn black and sneered at the popular crowd, but so did Johnny Cash. And Johnny Cash is not Goth.
[The Gothic movement began in the 1980s with a wave of overly sensitive (mostly male) rock-pop music from the UK – think The Smiths, Morrisey, et al. – and much like the Nerd empowerment events of the same time, the Goth kids were attempting to find strength by controlling their own exclusion. Most of these kids knew they were never going to be cheerleaders or football All-Americans – they were the misfits – so they dressed and acted in a manner that guaranteed ostracism. They dressed androgynously, talked about feelings, and were usually the only kids paying any attention during discussions of 19th century poetry. They didn’t want acceptance. And it worked. And the misfits found each other. ]
Because Harris and Klebold wore trench coats and did their damnedest to be off-putting to those around them, Goth culture (teens often on the receiving end of bullying themselves) was blamed for inciting violence. America (and its media) loves the idea of “enemies from within”, but aren’t particularly skilled at defining them.
I had a friend in high school, not a close friend but the kind I would talk to at lunch almost every day, who had the misfortune to be named Osama and to live in the US in the Fall of 2001. After several ugly incidents involving older generations (the hardest kind for teens to deal with), he started going by Sam. It was for the same reasons there weren’t a lot of Adolphs running around after 1945. In the grand scheme of things it isn’t the most heart-breaking concession that came out of the era, but it’s one that has stuck with me over the past ten years.
It is impossible for me to know how the televised horrors of both Columbine and New York City have shaped me as a person, but I believe they have made me wary of generalizations. They have made me think about spheres larger than my own. And they have made me aware of mans potential both for great love, but also for great hatred. But I do my best not to dwell on any of these thoughts for too long. They are simply too much for any one person to take on alone.
By Sept. 14th (roughly), I had watched the news at every opportunity, hoping for some conclusion (some great revelation), but it would not come so quickly or so easily. I, along with many Americans, turned off the TV – and the radio, and the Internet browser – and simply tried to live as best I could with what had happened. And that all any of us can ever really do.