They say you always remember where you were when you get wind of tragic news — my mother can recount in crystalline detail the state of her elementary-school classroom the morning JFK was shot — but shouldn't more memories follow from there? I flicked on a little TV in my freshman dorm room every morning and let Today play until I left for class. When I returned to my room from the shower that September morning, there were smoke and flames billowing from one of the Twin Towers. I stood there in my robe and flip-flops, running a comb through my hair, transfixed. Class was at 9 a.m., and the hallways of the 8th floor of McCollum Hall were still quiet.
I'd just started to dry my hair, absentmindedly staring at the TV as another plane few into the second tower. I remember Matt Lauer's voice, the utter shock and confusion in it as he and the rest of the anchors tried desperately to confirm facts and stay professional. And that's all I remember. I don't remember the towers falling; I don't remember the attack on the Pentagon or the crash landing of United flight 93 into the field in Shanksville.
For all I know, the rest of that day simply went on as if nothing had happened. I don't remember anything else. So much for "NEVER FORGET."
I moved to New York City in 2006, fearless and ready to take the world by storm — again, as if nothing had happened. I never knew the city without that yawning, dismal void in Lower Manhattan. It always looked a bit like a war zone to me anyway; the narrow, sinuous streets bullied by skyscrapers were its trenches. The men selling cheap T-shirts and waving American flags, the people standing at the gates of the construction zone at Ground Zero, trying to horn the lenses of their cameras through the chain-link fences…the scene always made me uncomfortable and a little confused, but it never made me sad.
It doesn't make sense to me that a place like that would be a tourist attraction. How morbid.
My only tangible tie to the city now is a magazine that arrives weekly at my apartment. It goes largely unread — I hang on to my subscription mostly for the gloriously challenging crossword in the back.
The theme of this week's puzzle: BEFORE & AFTER. The puzzle was studded with clues pertaining to movies, pop culture — standard crossword fare — but each answer also had some special meaning: "One Day in September," an Oscar-nominated movie; "The Two Towers," part of Tolkien's famous trilogy.
The clue for 55-Down was, "It began after the events this puzzle commemorates." I was stumped: "War" didn't fit. "Hatred" didn't either. "Racial profiling" was too long. I had to fill in other answers around that seven-letter mystery until I saw I'd started to spell the word "renewal."
Would that it could add up so simply in real life, beyond those black and white squares. I'm so disheartened by what we've become as a country and a culture since Sept. 11, 2001. It all makes me tired. It makes me ill. It has for a long time. I…can't write about politics here. There are few things I detest more than politics. But those years after the attacks were some of America's darkest. How anyone could see hope in anything that happened until 2008 is so far beyond me.
Even this year: How anyone could have danced in the streets with joy after we hunted down and murdered Osama Bin Laden just makes me shake my head. Barbaric.
All the empty remembrances, the bumper stickers and signs hung in windows, the screaming bald eagles plastered on pickup trucks, the equating of war and further destruction to some perverse sense of protecting freedom — these are symbols of ignorance offensive to me now as confederate flags. They're bandages covering festering wounds that have become infected with misplaced, blanket hatred.
Have I simply gotten older in these past 10 years — learned to see the world as it really is, and always has been — or does this anniversary serve as nothing than a reminder of the day before the world went to hell?
After all the innocent lives lost that day, after the incredible courage shown and sacrifice made by first responders, the best we could think of to begin our "renewal" was waging war against the cultures that raised the men who hijacked those planes? More sacrifice, more death?
The world as we knew it as Americans imploded that day, and we have done little more than fumble blindly through the rubble, kicking up more dirt and making an even bigger mess. Forgetting that two wrongs don't make a right. An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind. Piling more murders on top of what we already suffered, sending more innocent people to their certain death — this time knowingly — and thinking that's somehow going to fix things?
We have learned nothing.
Those almost 3,000 deaths on Sept. 11, 2001, were in vain.
I tweeted on Tuesday, "Really looking forward to Sept. 12." I'd been flipping through channels and seen ads for no fewer than three retrospective specials commemorating the anniversary. The cover of this week's People magazine: "The Children of 9/11." Someone asked during a Twitter chat for bloggers whether anyone had special plans for their blog. I rolled my eyes: All these seemed like cheap plays for ratings, jockeying for prime advertising space, glomming onto a cause for web traffic.
Then I thought, almost 3,000 people died that day 10 years ago, and the best I can do is sit here fuming about TV specials and publishing retrospectives? The people in those TV specials are not talking heads. The children on the cover of People are not models. They're humans. They are humans who saw this first hand. Some of them lost more than I, at this point, can imagine losing ever in my life, let alone in one day. And the weight of 9/11 finally came crashing down.
I sat on the sofa tonight watching a two-hour Dateline special about it. And I just wept. I wailed, buried my face in Emaline's fur and closed my eyes as the commercials ran muted in the background, sobbing with my windows and doors wide open to the cool night breeze. The German-American Festival rages on across the street from me; people will be stumbling down the sidewalks in a few hours, after drinking massive plastic steins full of German beer…
And they will be oblivious to me:
The girl who sat alone in her third-floor apartment on a Friday night, hugging her cat and crying as she forgot her anger and frustration about the aftermath, and just let the gravity and the enormity of the pain rush over her.
Finally, ten years later.