Twenty Years Later
Reflections on growing up in the wake of 9/11
I was seven years old on 9/11/01. My mom had just dropped me off on my second day of second grade. Here’s what I remember: First, my classmates started getting called out of class during the first part of the day. I was middle of the pack and remember being upset that I wasn’t first. My mom would probably laugh at this because she would have wanted to be first as well. There was a call over the loudspeaker asking you to go to some administrative office where my mom was waiting. I don’t really remember what she was like at the time, but I’m sure she was very upset.
After we left, I really wanted to play at the park with the few other kids whose parents let them play at the park. I think my mom let me play for five minutes. Then, we started to walk home from 96th street back to our home on 20th street in Stuyvesant Town. It was really unusual to walk this far in the city - there were subways, buses and as a last resort taxis, but everyone was walking. It felt like walking against a flood of people trying to get away from Downtown. We tried to get on a bus around midtown, but there was so much traffic that we got off at the next stop. I was small-ish and the bus driver accidentally closed the door on me and started driving off. Luckily, my mom caught his attention and the driver opened the door to let me off.
Most of the memories of the next few days, weeks, and months were a mix of candlelight vigils, missing person posters, and that massive plume of smoke that rose where the two buildings used to be. Things were confusing - What had happened? Were there environmental toxins in the air? Was another attack coming? The news coverage was constant and the messages weren’t always clear. I was fortunate not to lose anyone close to me, but my friend’s lost aunts and uncles - a heavy conversation for the foursquare court on the school playground.
In the years after 9/11, I struggled with an extreme fear of terrorists. There were constantly raised threat levels and reports of pending attacks. Naturally, it seemed like nowhere was safe. Unlike the monsters I feared when I was a little kid, the terrorists were real - I could see their faces on TV and the tears of family members who had lost their loved ones. Over time, the fear subsided - I grew up and realized that we were probably safe, that 9/11 was probably an anomaly. But it COULD happen.
For the 10th anniversary of 9/11, I didn’t have the tools to reflect as well on the incident. Just before the 10-year mark, Obama got on TV to announce that the SEAL team Six had killed Osama. When he came on to make an announcement, my first thought was not of victory, but fear - that it had happened again.
For the 20th anniversary, I’m back living in New York City. I’ve spent a lot of time the past few years examining myself and it’s hard to not look at 9/11 as part of what shaped my childhood. For many young New Yorkers, the day was an indelible part of childhood. Yet, it’s been a challenge to connect with other’s experiences of the day. My friend asked me if I had ever asked my parents about their experience on that day - I hadn’t. She couldn’t imagine what it was like to be an adult on that day.
This week, I’ve been reading articles and looking at old photographs of the events trying to reflect on the collective experience. I visited the 9/11 memorial and museum for the first time. The museum is incredibly well-executed. They have old architectural remains, first-person accounts, transcripts. The most poignant part was the room where they recreate the timeline from the events. In it, you are surrounded by the news of the morning - the confusion of the station anchors. I felt like I was back in the days after 9/11, overwhelmed with information and confused. Later, I learned that my dad had been at the opening of the museum because we had a neighbor who had a picture in it.
So many of those who died were like me - in their mid-twenties working white-collar jobs after graduating college. In this month’s Atlantic, there was an article about Bobby Mcilvaine, a 26-year old victim particularly like me. He went to Princeton and loved sports; he had a secret desire to become a writer. Losing him was devastating to his family and his soon-to-be fiance - it still lives with them.
There are a lot of photos of people falling from the towers. I restrained from adding one to this post because I find them difficult to look at. Recently, I’ve been struck by how similar these images are to photos of people falling off of planes trying to escape Afghanistan. It’s such an abnormal sightseeing a human fall without a parachute - the way the body goes limp and morphs into an abnormal shape. And it’s made me very sad for the fear these people must have felt as they were falling.
I’ve spent the week writing about my experience during 9/11 - I’ve never actually done this before even though I’ve talked about it a bunch. Nothing feels genuine enough to feel respectful to those who actually lost loved ones. And often, I’m so wrapped up in my own experience of the day that I don’t consider how others felt - how my parents felt, how the adults felt.
However, the reflection builds empathy for other people’s suffering and therefore feels necessary. 9/11 was a collective tragedy - the whole city, and country, was grieving and afraid. It was a rare moment where everyone was on the same page - instead of disagreeing, people focused on helping and caring for each other. And perhaps we can use that now as a reminder that despite all the differences that the social movements of the past few years have exposed between Americans, there is a common ground to be found. A reminder to never forget those lost and the collective suffering experienced.