Sunday, September 11, 2011
Ten years ago today
Ten years ago today was the third day of my very first year of college - quite literally the third day of what I then thought was my adult life.
I remember the haircut of the woman in the elevator of Devlin Hall who said the words, "terrorist attack on New York City," - that's how specific that time still is in my mind. It was a brown, straight-haired bob, and she wore a brown tortise-pattern head band to keep back off her face. I remember hearing her and thinking, "god, the news media is so alarmist."
Professor Eric Strauss' survey of bio class was in a giant lecture hall that had one of those floor-to-ceiling screens for projecting videos and powerpoint presentation. People were gathered outside the room frantically attempting cell phone calls. One girl was crying into the arms of a guy I vaguely recognized. My brain made the connection between what the woman on the elevator said and this scene outside the classroom, but the reality was still confused - like I was watching a movie of these events, not participating in them.
The minute I entered the classroom that vantage point switched. Strauss was projecting CNN live onto that giant screen, and the picture I walked into was of the second plane crashing into the tower. I don't remember the exact chain of events from that moment until the moment I came to and remembered that my Dad was in an office building 50 blocks from whatever the hell was going on at the Twin Towers. I watched one or maybe both of the towers collapse on that big screen. I heard shocked screams and cries from my classmates. I saw Professor Strauss cover his face with his hands then emerge with watery eyes to say, "We cannot have class right now. Please go make sure you family and friends are safe."
I didn't have any friends in that class yet, so I wandered alone outside to massive campus plaza to try for cell reception. People were standing around in clustered crying, passing phones around or catching each other up on the events. I remember searching the area with my eyes for absolutely anyone that I recognized, but I didn't find a single person. My roommate was still asleep in bed. The few friends whose numbers I had at that point where unreachable since none of our phones worked. I had absolutely no idea what to do.
The priority was calling home, so I went back into Devlin Hall and searched for a office that would have a land line. There was a short line of desperate people like me waiting to call home from the biology department office, so I waited my turn. "My dad works on Madison and 51st," I told one of the ladies in the office. "I'm so sorry sweetheart," she said. I didn't know her. She didn't know me. And neither of us knew what to say.
I got a hold of my Mom on the first try. She had already communicated with my Dad who was safe uptown but trapped in the city. He and some co-workers who also commuted from New Jersey were devising a route home through Long Island or Queens since all the tunnels and bridges had been shut off. "Try not to worry," my Mom said, "just go back to your dorm and stay far away from the city."
Boston College is a good 10 or 12 miles from the center of Boston and even further from Logan Airport where we quickly learned one or more of the planes had originated. I lived in freshman housing that was another mile or so from the school's main campus. And now 1+ hours into the attacks I was still completely alone. I distinctly remember having the desire to sit in the quad or on the steps of O'Neil Plaza so that one of the few people I knew might find me. I remember making a list in my head of the people I would feel comfortable crying in front of - thinking, "it would be good to sit here and have Joe find me because I think I would be ok crying in front of Joe." In the end I took the campus shuttle back to my freshman housing. There were 50-or-so freaked-out looking freshman on that shuttle, but again I didn't know a single one of them.
I spent the rest of the day holed up in my 12x12 foot double with my roommate Jenny flipping between network coverage. The rumors of new friends or acquaintances who'd lose family members or friends trickled in throughout the day. That night my best friend from high school who was just down the road at BU came to stay with us at BC. People were still very nervous about what could happen in the centers of other prominent U.S. cities, so our suburban campus was a safe refuge. I think he stayed for two or three days because no one really knew what could happen. No one really knew what did happen.
"Are you going to write a September 11th post?" R asked me a few days ago. "I don't think so," I replied, "I don't really have anything to say."
I was born and raised outside New York City, but I was detached from 9/11 by distance and - thank god - a lack of connection to anyone involved in the atrocities. It was like it didn't happen to my city, my family, my version of the world.
"I think I'm actually sadder about 9/11 today than I could bring myself to be when it first happened. How terrible is that?" I asked R. "Sometimes things don't make sense until you have a lot distance," he told me.
I have never been an adult in a pre-9/11 world; I was 18-years-old when it happened. I have never flown alone without taking off my shoes. I have never lived in a New York with the Twin Towers in its skyline. I have never learned of a major disaster - from a pipe bursting to a wide-spread power outage - and not thought it was a terrorist attack. My adult reality is one in which this country is a target. My attitude about flying on airplanes or living in downtown Manhattan is not, "there's no danger in that," it's, "we can't live lives governed by fear."
I think what makes me more sad about 9/11 today than I was a decade ago is the realization that America no longer stands apart from the rest of the world as this utopia of safety and power. Whether or not that feeling was ever grounded in reality, I grew up believing that there was the rest of the world, and there was us. We were rich. We were powerful. We were invincible.
Since 9/11/01 America has become more and more like the rest of the world. We are debt-ridden. We are a political mess. We are out of work. We are poorly educated. Those attacks were not the direct cause of this country's devolution, but I cannot help but wonder where we would be if they never happened. Would we have gone to war in Iraq? Would the stock market have collapsed? Would Obama have lost or won? Would the economy be the mess it is today? I don't know.
For the past ten years we've had to be sharper, brighter, more attentive, and more aware. We've had to have a bigger world view than we've had in my lifetime and that of my parents. We've had to reckon with what it feels like to live in a place that other people want to destroy.
I think the reason I'm sadder about 9/11 today than I could bring myself to be ten years ago has a lot to do with how detached I was as a brand new freshman with five friends to my name. But I think the other half of it is the feeling that we haven't done what we were supposed to do in these past ten years to fully recover or - more importantly - to advance.
Yes, installed protections to prevent a 9/11-scale attack from happening again. Yes, we got Bin Laden. Yes, we are winding down in Iraq and Afghanistan. But I feel like so many of the struggles this nation continues to battle fly in the face of that progress. We are a united force against terror and yet our congress can barely pass a single bill. We help create and restructure a democracy in Iraq and yet we can't agree on a process to build jobs here in America. I don't believe we're wasting our time elsewhere and ignoring our problems at home. I believe we should be great enough to do both.
I feel like we command the respect of the world and yet often don't behave like we deserve that respect. These are bold statements at the end of a long essay in the middle of a tough day, but they are how I feel about my America ten years after the greatest attacks on its soil.
I have faith, hope and appreciation for this country because I believe it has the potential to overcome any tragedy we experience. In many, many ways we have overcome the events of September 11th, but in many more we remain scarred and debilitated.
I would like to be wholly proud of this country again in my adult lifetime. So today in addition to remembering those lives we lost and being grateful for the heroes of 9/11, I am thinking about what I hope this entire country will look like ten years from today and wondering how I can be more a part of making it match my vision of what America should be.