September 11th really gets under my skin.
September 11th means a lot of things to a lot of people. But at the moment, I can’t get my head out of what it means for me.
September 11th, 2001, was my second day at college. Instead of adjusting to a new schedule and thinking about new classes and friends and everything else, I woke up at 8:30ish CT to my dad calling the room. He told me he was okay – he was supposed to have been at the World Trade Center because he had a monthly trip out there for work, but because of driving me to Minnesota, it had been rescheduled. And he told me there had been an attack. I remember thinking it didn’t seem real.
I wandered down the hall of my dorm, still unfamiliar, still scary in its own right, to the lounge. There, the TV was on with the live coverage. One tower had already collapsed. I remember feeling so numb, so lost. I was already in a new place alone and adrift, and suddenly even reality didn’t seem real. I sat on the floor just inside the door and watched the second tower fall. I remember thinking I should have been crying and I remember not knowing why I wasn’t.
A junior who lived on the floor 2 or 3 doors down from me (and I remember his face and his voice but I’ve long since lost his name) sat beside me and asked if I was okay. And then he put me together with my door and realized it said there in big letters that I was from New York. And he realized I wasn’t okay. So he put an arm around me for a while.
Others came in from the floor, and a few from upstairs where I think the TV wasn’t working. There was a girl on the floor from NYC who was in her room trying to call her mom crying hysterically and her roommate asked the RA to come help. The kid from Iraq and the kid from Saudi Arabia came into the lounge and were horrified, but they retreated to their room soon after and people mentioned they might be scared. Already the news was making noise about Muslim terrorists, and the kid from Pakistan wouldn’t look at any of us.
I remember going to class with a new professor and he was cold. He said he didn’t want to talk about it and didn’t want to bring it into our freshman seminar. And I understand the value of going on with the day, but that…lack of empathy. I think now it must have been a coping mechanism, but I never forgave him while I was in that class for what felt so callous.
I remember the college called an emergency convocation and we crowded into the chapel together. I remember sitting with someone…but not who; I only knew a handful of people then. I remember still feeling so cold and numb and lost and I still didn’t cry even though I tried. Fuck, I wanted to cry. I wanted to cry because I wanted someone to make it okay and there was no one. I wanted someone to pull out of their feelings so they could help me with my own because I had no understanding of how to handle what I was feeling.
What’s strange is that I don’t remember much more than that from that particular day. I remember checking the news – everyone was checking the news – and finding out about Flight 93. I remember feeling instantly grateful to be so far away from New York, as though that insulated me from the reality and my reaction. And I remember the rush of gratitude and pride that, even in the days and weeks afterwards, there was no backlash on my college’s campus against people from the Middle East or people who were Muslim or people who LOOKED Muslim. The backlash that happened in other places sickened me, and I was so, so glad to be around people who did not retaliate.
For most people, it was a day of tragedy and it led to a lot of ugly politics and a war and fear and many other things, but for me, it changed everything. Because I was a political science major and had been on that path since my junior year of high school. I was an international relations student and I wanted, I desperately wanted, to save the world. I arrived at a college especially chosen for its international relations program ready to march into a chaotic world and do some good.
And September 11th changed the very world I hoped to save.
I’ve long said that I chose not to continue into government work because of Sarah and the friends I had whom I didn’t want to leave, but I think that may only be fifty percent of the answer. The other fifty happened when the United States reacted to the attacks with war and hate and despicable rhetoric. The other fifty percent happened when September 11th scared me, both for what might happen to me out in the world if I served the US government, and for what the US government might do with me.
How could I lend my will and hope and talent to a government run by a warmonger who went into the wrong goddamn country just to appease what looked like latent daddy issues? How could I serve abroad when my very name and face and job could make me a target? How could I work in Washington DC and try to “protect” this country from a threat when that threat was defined by those in power as anyone whose skin and beliefs vaguely (and sometimes not even vaguely) resembled the hijackers’?
The world I wanted to save died on September 11th. Maybe not in reality, but certainly in me, it died. And I found I didn’t want to be a part of a system that killed civilians while arresting and detaining and torturing them. I found I didn’t want to be affiliated with the lies that my advisor debunked in class within days of the US presentation to the UN of the so-called WMDs in Iraq. I found I didn’t want to carry the United States like a badge into a part of the world we had rightly pissed off just because we were too stupid or too clumsy to tell the difference.
I saw the videos. I read the news. I followed the reactions. People worldwide started to view the United States as a racist, bigoted, violent, war-hungry nation because that is how we were acting. And I decided I didn’t want to help them do it.
I love this country. I have always loved this country. And to join in such actions and decisions felt like a betrayal to everything I love about the US, everything that makes it good. Everything that makes ANY nation good. I could not be a traitor to the ideals of justice and equal treatment and peace, not when those very ideals were coming second to ideas like “security” and “prevention.”
After September 11th, it’s possible the United States needed someone like me more than it ever had, but I just wasn’t strong enough to answer that call. I wasn’t strong enough to face down those men in power. I wrote my final senior thesis on the political philosophy behind espionage because it was the closest I could get to actually studying What The Hell Is The US Doing And Here Is What It Will Do To Us All without grief.
September 11th was a national and international tragedy and the beginning of many more. It was a day of death and sorrow and pain and fear, and it kicked off far more to come. What it is to the world cannot be understated.
It’s not remote to me now. I didn’t lose a friend or loved one in the Towers like my dad did. I didn’t breathe in the carcinogenic dust like the brave men and women who did their best to save lives.
But something in me died that day, and it is a pain that never goes away. Any time I see the NYC skyline, I ache for what is no longer there. Or in movies that haven’t been edited, I ache when I see the Towers stand. I ache because when they broke and fell, they took a piece of me with them. They took my future. Me the Diplomat-to-Be died that day, too. I hurt for the people of my nation and my state and my city (because NYC is MINE as much as it is anyone’s who has ever loved it, anyone’s who has ever walked its streets and felt strangely at home) and I will never stop hurting for them.
And I have never yet stopped hurting for myself, either.
September 11th, 2001 happened to me. It happened to me and it changed me, and while my suffering is nothing, NOTHING, like those who lost loved ones at Ground Zero or the Pentagon or in a field in Pennsylvania, it is no less real. And after it happened to me and it happened to the world, then the suffering went outwards in wars and bombings and retaliation and detainments and invasions. The cycle of violence and pain was exacerbated and spread to hundreds of thousands or millions of people who were just as innocent as those on the planes.
People forget what 9/11 began when they remember 9/11, but I never can. Because I remember my Iraqi floormate whose hometown was involved in fighting before we graduated. I remember my childhood friend and companion and protector, who was called to two tours in Iraq and for whom I was scared all the time.
It happened to me and then it happened to the world. And it KEEPS ON happening because we have learned NOTHING as a people. And maybe, maybe I should have found the courage and stood up and tried to be the change that is so needed. But I don’t have that kind of power.
And maybe that’s also why September 11th gets to me so much. Not only was it traumatic and tied up in the biggest period of upheaval in my life to date, and not only was it a defining moment for my future and choices and career, and not only was it outright horrific in every particular but for the selfless, wonderful heroes who ran into fire and ruin to save lives. But because I can’t forget all the people it happened to, people whose lives were never the same, people who have to live with it in their hearts even if they were nowhere near the attacks themselves. 9/11 isn’t just about the Towers and the Pentagon and Flight 93. It’s about Afghanistan. Iraq. Guantanamo. All that suffering, all those lives, all the weight of that terror and trauma in the world, and it happened to us all.
And there was nothing I could do to stop it, not any part of it. Not the hijackers. Not the invasion of Iraq. Not the prisoners STILL FUCKING HELD without their rights. I was just a little girl, 19 years old and without having grown any true courage yet. By the time I had courage enough, it was too late. The world had been broken and there was nothing I could do to fix it.
They say “Never forget.” But people do. People hoist flags and make speeches or just go, “Oh, it’s nine-eleven. That was so sad.” And they go on. They forget.
But September 11th is STILL HAPPENING to people. It’s still happening to me, too. I will never be able to honestly look at my life and know in my heart that it was all okay. Because September 11th scared me off a hill where I believed I was born to stand, and that future was lost.
I love my life. I love the people in my life. I am not usually sorry for the choices I made; indeed, being in this life has given me opportunities and friends and chances I never would have found otherwise and I wouldn’t give them up for anything. But on any September 11th, two painful days after my birthday, I can feel the difference. The difference of what I could have been. Of where I could have gone. Of the other work I could have done. Of a time I put my head down when I could have stood up. Because who knows what might have changed and whose lives might have been spared if I had been there?
On September 11th, 2001, heroes shone bright against hate and evil. And I was too busy being numb and shocked and scared and lost to join them. I didn’t hug anyone else. I didn’t help. And I went on to not help. I went on to evade the hard work of making things right rather than digging in. It took me several years to analyze that day and what I did right and wrong, so I could teach myself to do better next time. So that I can be one of the helpers, and not one of those needing the help in the moment of crisis.
But I also never forget that I went on to become what I am because I had that luxury. The people of Iraq and Afghanistan didn’t have that choice. It wasn’t just my perceptions of the world that died in the aftermath of that day; it was my perceptions of myself. And all of that is completely worthless compared to the lives lost worldwide. I may have my own memories and feelings to deal with, but I will never, ever forget that my feelings are NOTHING to the true harm that came to the world that day and every day since.
So on any September 11th, you’ll find I lapse silent throughout the day. I get melancholy. I have trouble laughing or relaxing. I retreat and stop reaching out. I have a small downswing into depression.
It’s the day so many, many lives were ruined forever, and not just in NYC or the Pentagon or on Flight 93.
It’s the day fear spread far more quickly than a wildfire, and it was followed by pain and violence that has never since let up.
And it’s the day my dreams died and were replaced with a profound awareness that nothing I ever did with my life, no matter how spectacular or mundane, would ever make the world right again.
Forget September 11th, 2001? How could I?
Its shadow still falls all over my life, even on the brightest days. And I’m just a nobody in the Midwest who DIDN’T lose limbs or liberty or loved ones.
So when you remember 9/11? Don’t just remember the towers and the planes. Remember the people in other countries whose lives have been torn up. Remember every person who ever looked up in the sky of NYC and felt like running and hiding. Remember every person in every country who felt like they would never be safe again because of their heritage or their religion or their culture. Because 9/11 happened to us all.
Never forget that.