Thursday, September 11, 2008

Emergency 9/11: Seven years on.

Each generation has at least one huge cultural moment of tragedy that briefly draws this nation together: the Great Depression, Pearl Harbor, the Kennedy assassinations , the murders of King and Lennon, the Challenger explosion. But September 11th was different and... closer. In a rare shift to first-person perspective, WB staff and contributors take a moment to reflect on 9.11.01 as a monumental event in American culture.

I vividly recall sitting in a meeting when someone walked by and announced that a plane had just crashed into the World Trade Center. People around the room were at first incredulous, certain that a small-craft pilot had probably made either a horrible mistake or perhaps had a bit too much to drink before taking off. Twenty minutes later, the same person ran by to announce that another plane had hit. Surely this was a sad attempt to clear the conference room so she could have it for herself. How could two planes make the same mistake? A palpable uneasiness settled over the room and my boss asked me to go check the news.

Nothing could have prepared me for what I saw on the television screen in our waiting room. CNN displayed horrific images of New York City on fire. The U.S. had been attacked and more hijacked planes were in the air, headed for D.C. and perhaps other destination. The era of instant information does not always guarantee accuracy or consistency — many conflicting reports came out that day, but few people actually paid close enough attention to the words. The images are what riveted the nation over the next several days.

Now, seven years later, many of the specific details of those first few days are lost. But the one clear image that remains with me is the sky. I remember looking up in those few days after 9/11 and seeing nothing but clouds and blue. Flights had been suspended indefinitely and I had never seen an empty sky before.

The first voice to tell me of the Trade Center "accident" was British. As I merged onto the last stretch of highway on the way to work, the BBC host on the radio did one of those "this just in" announcements: some sort of aircraft had hit one of the towers, and it looked like a terrible accident. I shook my head, picturing a small private plane. Fifteen minutes later as I pulled into a parking space at work, the same host, clearly upset now, announced that a second plane had hit the other tower. Now it was obviously a concerted attack. I sat in the car without moving while my stomach turned upside down.

A lot of students arrived late for the 9:30 class, with news that the Pentagon had been bombed. So had the Supreme Court building and the Capitol. Washington D.C. was in flames, they said. The TV networks couldn't sort it all out fast enough. I looked out into the room full of young faces and saw confusion, but not fear. We talked for a few more minutes about what was really happening and what was rumored — and then I said, "All right, let's crack the books and look at what I asked you to read." We talked about Quintilian and Cicero while the towers fell.

Within weeks, those two buildings were on their way to being turned into a hollow trope, invoked to frighten people into cooperation and support. But later on this day, I realized what we'd done in that classroom. According to all of the panicked misinformation, our nation's capital had been under siege by some foreign power — and we'd calmly proceeded to discuss classical rhetoric. We could do this because we knew that no matter how bad things looked, there was no danger; our country would be fine. With this realization, I understood what patriotism felt like. It was a sense of pride and gratitude as big as New York. I wish it could have lasted.

I was in my seventh grade classroom. Because the eighth graders were so much older and more mature, they got to watch the news. We didn’t. By the end of the day, the older kids had managed to scare us into thinking that a war had begun and all of our fathers were being taken from work and shipped off to Washington. I was crying by the time my mother came to pick me up, but she assured me that my father would be home that night. Once we were home, she turned on the news and, without needing to say a word, showed me what had happened.

I knew this day would be something no one would forget, but I didn’t really understand why. (I saved my school papers with that date on them, though, just in case it became a part of history.) It bothered me that coverage of the attack was replacing all regular TV programming. We discussed “the events” for a few minutes the following day at school, but it was never spoken of again unless I saw it on TV. Because of this, I never really “got it” until I saw 9/11 covered in my high school history book. Seeing it written as history, I finally realized everything I had been struggling to understand.

Our culture changed that day. Movies were scripted and songs written; clothing became patriotic. 4th of July decorations became everyday artifacts, and our priorities and ideals as Americans were challenged. And now, on the anniversary, I still try to figure out what 9/11 really means to me on an individual level. I often find myself carrying a bit of worry when I’m in big cities. I don’t want to think of it as being pessimistic, but simply being realistic and aware of my surroundings.

Eighth Chakra:
I was mother to a 13-month old boy and a graduate student in English, teaching night classes twice a week, staying home during the day to be with my baby and, presumably, to write. Cheerios sprouted like mushrooms from between the pages of my dissertation. That morning my son was rambunctious; his new zombie-walk was developing into a run. I was relieved that his 10:00 nap would happen nearly an hour early; I could have some time to work.

The moment he was in his crib, I reached for the radio—NPR, the BBC—to hear grown-up voices. As soon as they reported the first plane crash, I switched to the TV and watched the rest of it all unfold in real time. When my son awoke from his nap later that morning, the country was different, the world was different. And in ways that I have realized over time, the iconography of American childhood was different. Tall, oblong objects appear in pairs in children's play, toy planes fly into towers of building blocks, tiny minds that want to view the world in terms of monsters and heroes believe they have a real-life example.

“They wanted to destroy all of America, Mom," he tells me seven years later. "They wanted to take over America and wreck it.” But I want my son to see the many shades of gray that led to these events. I say something about America’s dependency on Middle Eastern oil. I try terms he might understand, “Our government got bossy. Some people got angry.”

For some parts of the story, there are no shades of gray. He learns new information when another child at school whispers on the playground. “People jumped out of the buildings before they fell down, Mom. It’s true!”

“They did, honey. There was a fire, and they were terribly frightened.”

“If I had a time machine," he says, "I would go back and tell them to get out before the planes ever came.”

Seven years later, it occurs to me that Orson Welles faked a catastrophe like this in 1938 and pulled it off. The day’s events could have been dreamed up by a modern-day Orson Welles, except that no officials rushed out to tell us it wasn’t real.

Tower Two is gone.

Because I like my mornings quiet, and because I was alone on this morning, those were the first words I heard that day on the radio.

NPR’s Bob Edwards spoke evenly that morning, as he did every morning. But I sensed an undercurrent of muted feeling as he said those four words and made my heart leap in double time.

I kept driving toward work, watching the sky for planes and bombs.

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