I feel about 10 years behind.
When the planes hit the Twin Towers in 2001 I was a month into my freshman year of college in Chicago. I woke up to my roommate’s mother calling from California to make sure we were okay and to tell us to stay away from downtown. I didn’t have a television so I went to the room down the hall to watch the now infamous images of the flames coming out of the north tower. Having lived through the media coverage of the Murrah Federal Building bombing in my home state of Oklahoma, this wasn’t the first time I’d experienced national tragedy through television images. But at first I didn’t grasp the extent of it all. I didn’t believe it when I overhead someone say the whole building collapsed as I brushed my teeth to get ready for class.
The rest of my day went on like most everybody else’s who didn’t live in New York or have loved ones involved. We went about our lives. But, everyone was quiet. We talked about it without having to introduce the topic. “Did you know anyone in there?” “Did you hear that the Sear’s Tower could be next?” “Pennsylvania and the Pentagon too.”
I had been to New York just once at that point in my life but I suppose like all small town adolescent Americans yearning for escape, I loved that city before I met her. Now, having spent quit a bit of time there, I can confirm that she is everything she’s meant to be and more. Still, when I look back on my 18 year-old-self’s reaction to the events on September 11, 2001 I didn’t grieve. I SAW the sadness but I didn’t FEEL it. Not until now.
There are a couple of reasons why I’m a late a griever. At the time I was 18 and worried about reading 100 pages a night of The Odyssey for my English Literature degree. I was in Chicago; my family was in Oklahoma. I was too far removed and too easily self-absorbed to try to make sense of it all.
But secondly, and most unfortunately, the events of September 11 quickly turned patriotic and political- George Bush political, two concepts which I instinctively rejected. My own need for contemplative sadness was overshadowed by a nation-wide surge in loud American pride. If it was everyone’s tragedy, it was the French hating, Arab (Ay-Rab) hunting, Toby Keith loving American’s who took that fear and turned it into a national consciousness (Okay they probably had a little help from the government and certain media outlets). I wondered if I was a phoney for not joining in. Is this what people who were really saddened by September 11 look like? I couldn’t relate at all.
Before the shock of it all wore off everyone had moved on to plots for revenge. And instead of finding my own way of dealing, I got caught up in heightened airport security, following the invasion of Afghanistan, vehemently opposing the Iraq War, criticizing the international relations of the Bush administration, and on and on for the last 10 years.
Now, having become an adult in a post 9/11 world, I have less homework and, living in London, an indirect experience of American patriotism. In the lead up to the 10th anniversary of the planes crashing into the towers, everyone is reflecting but I find I’m finally experiencing the sorrow for the first time.
Among the pundits who say America did everything right or who take it upon themselves to point out lessons (un)learned or take a hard look at their own pro-war reactions immediately after the events, the coverage that has actually stood out for me are the victims’ stories- 10 years on. I’ve never read the “Talk of the Town” section of the New Yorker with such vigour, or wept while reading the Sunday Times Magazine. And I’d forgotten that there were actually survivors in this story too.
Tragedies like this happen every day in countries far less fortunate than my own. I suppose what happened in New York resonates more not just because it happened to my own people, but also because of the huge storm of change that occurred and continues to occur after. It’s impossible to miss the why of a post-9/11 world. But, for me, it was too easy to overlook the how. Now, I’m finally doing it on my own time. I am ten years behind, but at least I’ve arrived.