Sunday, September 11, 2011

And Now?

I write this not because I’m unique, but because I’m not. Because I’m just another American who remembers that day and can’t quite shake free of its grip.

There’s a rawness here. Still. So I’m not going to claim that I am blessed—as are some—with that enviable ability to lean back and observe this all from a morally pure point of view. I can’t do that. This thing. It did a number on me.

That day? I was just at work. A lot of people were just at work. That was the thing, I think. It was so easy to imagine ourselves there.

A few days after, my wife and I decided to lay flowers somewhere, but we didn’t know the right spot. We were living in DC, so we walked down to the National Mall and wandered the vacant spaces between those memorials. We finally chose the statue of Roosevelt sitting in his secluded site. What we wanted was wisdom and strength.

You know what we’ve ended up with instead.

How about this: The bodies from the Pentagon traveled in yellow helicopters. They passed low as I grilled burgers on the roof deck.

That’s what I tell people when they ask for a story about being in that city, at that time. I also mention seeing a machine gun mounted on a jeep that drove down my little street. And the smell of a building and bodies burning for days.

But those aren’t stories. They’re fragments. Ash. And we still live in that debris, I think. A man falling. A fireball. A bullhorned voice and grainy images of dark-skinned men running an obstacle course. It all drifts down around us. Coats us, still, and makes it hard for us to see.

“Perhaps the most heinous act of terrorism in history.” A columnist wrote those words for my local paper today. He’s wrong, of course. People, throughout history, have terrorized one another in far worse ways. Unbelievably worse ways.

And yet...

What happened was horrific and frightening and angering and, despite what I just wrote, I get a little ill when I hear fellow Americans trying to minimize what happened, trying to act as if our national obsession over those events is somehow a sign of moral weakness or intellectual dimness. What it is, I think, is a sign of our humanity. As much as the horrors elsewhere in the world might make us ache, we Americans felt the scorch of those fires ten years ago. The worst atrocity is always the one that happened closest to you. It’s the way our minds operate. It’s understandable.

And yet, again...

We’re here. You, me. Ten years on and we’re still here. And I sit in a house I didn’t own back then, with two children who hadn’t been born back then, with a decade beneath me that couldn’t have been imagined back then—I sit with all this newness and know you sit with a newness of your own. And I wonder: where to now? If we can still feel so connected to people who were just at work—whom most of us didn’t know—can’t we feel connected to others as well? Can’t we sense those strands tying us together? In this newness—in this continuance of life—so many seem so focused on dividing themselves from others, on withholding compassion for reasons often as narrow as a difference in political affiliation. But to what ends? Truly. If we refuse to admit we're all journeying forward together, where do we think we're going to end up?

Because, you see, there are names in bronze lining two pools where towers once stood. But there are so many other names in this world that no one will ever inscribe. And there will be more. A lot more. And what are we going to do about that?


  1. Great post, Alan. You pose a lot to think about. I was eighteen, in my first semester of college, when it happened.

  2. Thanks, Jason. I wonder if the experience felt any different on a college campus. I was a college sophomore when Oklahoma City happened and I remember everyone gathering around the TV in the student center. It was all very communal and everyone cut class. In my office, on 9/11, we had no TV and actually tried to pretend we were still working.

  3. Yeah, everyone was watching TV wherever ones were. I had a sociology class at 11 a.m., but we hooked up the TV in the room and watched it for a little while before the professor dismissed class. I think it was best to admit that nothing was gonna get done that day with the event weighing heavily on everyone's mind.