I do not think about the events of September 11, 2001 on a daily basis. I—like many—have suppressed the images of mangled steel and chalky smoke in order to continue my day to day routine, fulfill my responsibilities, and achieve my personal aspirations. The human psyche is not necessarily forgetful, but it is highly adaptable, practical, and obsessively focused on the present. As a result, the radical anxiety of that morning presents itself only in fragments—on the annual anniversary, in postmodern novels, aboard airplanes, or in painfully innocent opening scenes of the Twin Towers in 1990s romantic comedies.
I have never formally studied 9/11 in a current events class. I did not personally know anyone who died that morning, nor have I met any of the first-responders, politicians, or everyday New Yorkers. Over the decade of discourse, I’ve heard Americans anchor blame for the attacks on bin Laden, colonialism, the Koran, Dick Cheney, the overthrow of the Shah, the Crusades, aggressive foreign policy, fundamentalism, American sin, liberalism, conservatism, God, the Devil. But the witness I am most familiar with in the 9/11 narrative is myself, along with a core of peers who came of age in the wake of that morning. Although our political outlooks were still, like our brains, unformed, there’s nothing like the unflinching stare of international networks to make a 4th grader believe she is, for better or for worse, situated as a citizen at some sort of geopolitical focal point.
9/11 is said to have unfolded in “real time,” in that the news organizations captured the live implosion of the second building. Yet, for me, a closer definition of “real time” indicates the first major world event I was conscious of—a symbol of geopolitical upheaval imprinted upon my own youth.
I recall sitting in one of many elementary school desks that was stuffed with colored pencils and Pink Pearl erasers as I completed a spelling exercise. As the morning developed, teachers repeatedly excused themselves to whisper in the halls. They hid their frantic mouths behind sheets of paper, feigning small-talk. At the time, I had never been to NYC, could not have told you where Afghanistan is on a map, and had not even ridden an elevator more than ten or so floors. But that didn’t mean I couldn’t feel fear. The lips behind the copy paper exchanged not gossip, but panic. That evening, the kids at Korn Elementary School and children across the nation received explanations from their parents, who told of ungentle implications in gentle terms.
With age, many of my classmates tried to transcend the melodramatics of the yearly memorial services, noting that countless other atrocities had happened to other peoples in other lands. Why should New York be special? Why should America hold a premium on mourning? While an admittedly mature insight, that view also teeters on a relativist dismissal of genuine experience. 9/11 unnerved the West and the world. I worry that overlooking this reality will only fracture us further. I do not for one moment doubt the reality of human suffering, whether it be in a Brooklyn Deli in 2001, Mumbai in 2008, or Hiroshima in 1945.
But human recollection is a centralizing force. Memory cannot capture all people of all times. Empathy roots us as human, while also rooting us in our own neighborhoods. The best eyes I have for interpreting 9/11 are my own: a younger, purer self, sporting size four Nikes, who sloshed through September rain with friends at the bus stop and wondered if the heavens were crying. Our generation’s recognition that a national and international catastrophe operates at the deeply personal seems the only way for catharsis. Together, our individual outlooks on that morning—so often set in a elementary classroom—constitute a new cultural canon. 9/11, like Pearl Harbor and the assassination of JFK for the generations before us, takes on the question of “Where were you when?”
In 4th grade, I was too young for fancy theories as to why history was crashing into the Manhattan skyline, but I was old enough to sense an obligation to feel. Now, I feel an obligation to do so responsibly. While I do not have qualms about labeling the plane hijackers “evil,” the abstract notions of good and evil do not prepare for global comprehension or informed citizenship. Instead, the good-evil narrative sharply divides between pre-9/11 childhood and a post-9/11 loss of innocence. Throughout that school year, I repeatedly flipped my spelling book back to September 10th—my most literal childhood attempt to reverse time. 9/11 is, like the ashen downtown on a bright day, the smeared lens that divides light and dark. 9/11 splintered American confidence, and so too does it continue to atomize our perceptions of that day and the events that followed. While I want our nation to resist the temptation towards contempt and anger, I resent calls for Americans to shrug off 9/11, as if it is a childish nightmare adulthood can sooth. I don’t wish to simplify, but complicated histories or denials don’t mend either. Despite my best attempt at intellectualization, 9/11 will always cause me to regress back to that grade-school desk.