Today is the nineteenth anniversary of the September 11 attacks, the event I always thought would be the defining event of my lifetime. I have kept a file on my computer, moving it every few years as I buy a new one, full of photos from the aftermath–a file I had not looked at in years until today. And there I also found some thoughts recorded from just six days after.
A headline on a website.
That’s all it was at first. “A plane has hit the World Trade Center.” I imagine a small single-engine job, perhaps on a crippled engine, trying desperately to pull up, to miss. I was at work, had just read my morning news, was answering e-mails. I clicked over to the New York Times website. Nothing but a banner at the top, with an exclamation point. CNN would do better, perhaps—but even they only had a short, terse paragraph. This was obviously still happening.
And it was. Another plane struck, and the 16 ton clue hit. This was no accident. It couldn’t be.
“How do they get the fire hoses up that high?” I speculated about the planes used to put out forest fires. Maybe they would use those.
Another plane hit, this time the Pentagon. This was surreal. I sat at my desk, clicking through websites, looking for more news. I found some pictures—not really believable ones, frozen in time as they were. Finally I gave up and went down to the Central Café, where two TVs were broadcasting two different stations, with people gathered all around.
I saw the first collapse, which had just happened. And then the second, looking for all the world like a controlled implosion. Suddenly, a blank spot. It can’t not be there. It just can’t. Not like this.
I thought back some sixteen years—almost half a lifetime. A long drive had culminated in a trip on a darkened New Jersey turnpike, the refineries sparkling like a set from a cyberpunk movie, and then finally—the skyline, gleaming, the impossibly tall towers rising over countless smaller jewels. Later on the same trip, my love of tall, elegant buildings would be cemented.
I remember three things about the World Trade Center. The first is walking across the plaza—there was a big modern sculpture there—and then looking up. The south tower was on the left, the north on the right. An endless expanse of concrete thrust upwards. They were almost new then—just entering their second decade.
The second is the elevators. I had never been in a building where you took one set of elevators part way up, and then got on another set for the remainder of the trip. The elevators were fast—I could hear my ears pop.
The final memory was the view. I have pictures of that. A picture of a guy named Dave leaning against the Empire State Building—except I thought it would be funnier to have him leaning against nothing. You could see the top of the north tower, with its huge antenna, from the observation deck. I have a pamphlet that shows the entire panorama. “As close to heaven as you may ever get,” read the caption. A group of us posed along the railing. I remember the wind—it was a late March day—whipping around, catching my hair. I was 18.
Somehow having been there makes it both more and less real. More real, in that the towers were more than just postcard images for me. Less real, in that for all my fascination with ruins, of various disasters, I have had the luxury of time or distance. Not here. When I close my eyes, I can recall standing on that south tower, facing north. The plane would have hit many floors below, off on my left side. It was a long way down from up there. It can still take my breath away, thinking about it. Now the reasons are different.
But some part of me still needed to see the ruins. Those bits of building—where did the rest of the building go? There was a lot of it there, but all I saw are jagged pieces tossed here and there. They looked very small. Even the truncated stump that remained of one tower collapsed away in a few hours, too. Then the smoke began to clear somewhat, and I gained perspective on the piles that had looked small from the air when I saw the firemen dwarfed by them. The buildings have not vanished entirely yet.
Anger, perhaps, but dulled anger. When you have seen someone jump to his death rather than burn alive, the will to lash out becomes blunted in deep sorrow. There will be someone to blame, but it will not reverse time, give us all back that which we have lost. There will be a price exacted, but it will not heal the battle scar rent upon our souls.
Perhaps someday, a new building will rise from the ashes. Perhaps I will stand there someday, and feel, as I have felt in all buildings that have replaced earlier, vanished structures, the presence of the past humming in the air.
Sunday, and the most evocative picture I have seen. The new skyline, with the aching gap—but within that gap, two towers of light rise up, reminding me of what had recently filled those spaces—the lives, the stories, the building itself, remembering all. It occurs to me that the buildings are still there—time has simply moved on.
In that piece, I talk about “sixteen years ago” when I was 18–half a lifetime at the time. It’s now been nineteen more.
In the first few years, September 11 was a scar, freshly grown over, still red, still twinging from time to time, the lighting bolts of collective pain jolting the nation and the world. The physical ruins themselves were gone in less than a year, leaving a hole that could not be filled. The rituals became codified–the ringing of the bell, the saying of the names, the two beams of light. At first, we relived it, played the footage over and over, still shocking in its ferocity, each year. There were documentaries, some running a clock in real time. Twisted beams appeared as memorials in front of fire stations. The nation was one, and the world was on its side–for a time. The “coalition of the willing” went to Afghanistan. Fewer were willing to go to Iraq.
I moved back to Canada 16 months later. Something had shifted. We needed to be north of the border. Initially it was because of my husband’s isolation and anxiety, but as time passed, and while I still continued to commute back and forth to the US on a monthly basis, still working for JP Morgan Chase, I sensed that I was losing my comfort with the country of my birth, that natural sense of belonging, and I was identifying more and more as a Canadian.
But 9/11 always reminded me that my citizenship was still dual. Those days after the attacks, the unity, the collective mourning–this was an America I still believed in, a place where people put aside their differences and helped each other in crisis.
And even as the events faded, as memorials were built, as new buildings rose, as wars were fought, I believed. But far below the ground, unseen, the foundation had been fracturing for years. We rebuilt upon something that was already unstable, and for awhile, it was bright, and hopeful.
I have written about the sense of exile I feel now from the United States. The pandemic has made it a place I cannot visit for now. What has happened in the past six months–when those foundational cracks have been exposed, and now gape wide– has made it a place I may not see again for a very long time–if ever. When faced with a common enemy–an enemy that should have been easy to unify against–the leadership of the US instead sowed division and dissent when a virus could not bend to its dictates.
And so, another September 11 passes, almost unnoticed, much in the same way the anniversaries of 1945 have passed. It does not seem fit to celebrate the end of one war while in the midst of another, or to commemorate a tragedy that killed a few thousand when many times that have died in the current struggle–so many lives that could have been spared. I fear at the end of this, the US will be like the USSR at the end of WW2–the foe finally defeated (no thanks to the cruel man in charge), but too many of its people sacrificed needlessly.
And this is what I mourn on this day now. The buildings are still there this time. There are no evocative physical ruins to ponder–but they are there nonetheless.
“There will be someone to blame, but it will not reverse time, give us all back that which we have lost. There will be a price exacted, but it will not heal the battle scar rent upon our souls.”