The more time that passes, the stranger I feel about what happened 13 years ago. At the same time that my memories of that day are acutely clear in my mind — from waking up, to watching grainy footage on my laptop, to gathering in silence around televisions, to picking at our food in a Mexican restaurant at the end of the day, feeling awkward for eating while the World Trade Center and Pentagon smouldered — I feel oddly distant, as though these events happened at some other time and place, to some other person. Which, I suppose, they did. 13 years is a long time, leaving ample room for changes large and small.
I was contemplating the other day that children entering high school now grew up in a post 11 September landscape. They haven’t known a world in which the United States hasn’t been at war, and they never saw the Twin Towers for themselves. They perhaps don’t understand the symbolism of the towers and what it meant for the United States to be struck at its core that way, and yet, they’re the ones living with our collective response to it. They’re the ones inheriting what we wrought, and what the generations before us created, too.
I only saw the Twin Towers a few times during their lifetime, and I remember their outsized bulk but I also remember being awed by them, because of what they represented. I’ve seen the newly-completed Freedom Tower, too, and I know that it will take on its own iconic status as the successor to the towers, as a symbol of the hole that was created in the United States, and how we chose to fill it. Perhaps someday I’ll enter Freedom Tower, as I once did the Twin Towers, and I’ll walk its hallways and look out across the city through its windows. I hope that I will never wake up to the news that someone has attacked it, or any other site in the US, because I loathe terrorism, and the people who commit it.
I am a patriot, though not a nationalist, and this is something that may surprise some people, but I do have a strange, heart-squeezing affection for this country even as I want to strangle it sometimes. The United States has such potential, if only we could realise it, and its citizens are some of the kindest, most hopeful, wonderful people that I’ve ever met — just as some of its citizens are also among the cruelest, most hopeless, awful people I’ve ever met. The people working in the towers that day, those from the US and abroad, didn’t deserve what happened to them, suffering and dying for ideologies many of them probably didn’t care about, weren’t invested in, and weren’t even aware of.
Thousands of people died that day, and thousands more have died since, in the name of some kind of strange, twisted justice. The United States has become increasingly isolationist and angry, it has disrupted ties with foreign allies, it has created a world in which people fear the US, rather than respecting it. The US has shown itself as a hypocrite, a war-monger, a dreadnought upon the seas of global understanding.
The 11 September attacks were a pivotal point in my life, as they were for many others of my generation, and each year, I find myself having less to say about them, not just because of a sense of distance and abstraction, but out of a sense of bitterness over what came of them. They were politicised, exploited, and abused. This country built a symbol of recovery on top of a graveyard, and then it installed a giftshop directly over the unidentified remains of the dead, where people could buy themed keychains and cheeseboards. The attacks have become an icon of destructive US foreign policy and capitalism, instead of a sobering moment in history.
They were a wakeup call for many of us, and what we woke up to was a dark, unpleasant world. Before the ashes had even settled over Manhattan, before first responders started getting sick from what they had inhaled, before the brave passengers who fought on board Flight 93 were laid to rest, the United States had already decided to respond to violence with violence, indiscriminately, not understanding that terrorism is not like other acts of war, and that violence only feeds it. Today the United States is a place where domestic terrorism from the right is a constant fear, where children shoot each other in their classrooms, where we are forced to endure mounting indignities at airport security lest we carry bombs in our shoes.
I rarely spoke to my grandfather during his lifetime, and never talked about the war with him, but I’ve always wondered if he felt this way about 7 December, and Pearl Harbour. It must have been a key event in his own lifetime, but one that became increasingly difficult to talk about, to fully explain, to even comprehend, as he grew older. It wasn’t just a ‘you had to be there’ moment, but a moment in which everything hinged on the events of a single day, with the nation watching, with utter chaos dictating conversations and decisionmaking.
I wonder how he would have felt about the events of 2001 and what followed, if he’d been alive to witness them.
Image credit: Tribute in Light, Shawn Hoke, Flickr.