Today is the five-year anniversary of the September 11th attacks. I hope everyone will take a few minutes today to reflect on what happened, and send your thoughts/prayers to the people who have been most deeply affected.
Like many New Yorkers, I dread the September 11th anniversary every year it rolls around. I’m glad that the city and the people here are given this room to grieve; I’m glad we remember it, that we don’t forget the names and the faces of the people who died and were injured, and that we talk about what it’s meant for our country.
But I hate it. I hate the flag-waving, the fanfare, the members of the yellow ribbon brigade talking about where they were, how they had ridden the subway under the towers only a year before, how they were in New York that one time and they saw the towers.
When I wrote about September 11th two years ago on my old blog, I had a stay-at-home Catholic homeschooling mother of five who lived in Akron, Ohio tell me that all Americans experienced September 11th equally, that we all have our stories and we all grieved and that it’s a tragedy that we all share.
I hope that all Americans do feel some ownership over September 11th. I hope we all think about it today. I hope that we all grieve. But we did not all experience the tragedy equally. September 11th is not my tragedy in the same way that it is the tragedy of the woman whose partner died in the towers; it is not my tragedy in the same way that it is the tragedy of the man who barely escaped; it is not my tragedy in the same way that it is the tragedy of the daughter who sat terrified all day because she didn’t know if her father had made it out or not. For the woman in Ohio, it is not her tragedy in the same way that it is a tragedy for New Yorkers.
An American flag decal on your minivan does not mean that you know. A yellow ribbon and a “go get ’em” attitude does not make your experience as real or as valid as someone’s who watched it in real time, who grieved for a person who was real to them. Stickers and flags do not make up for the fact that five years later, New Yorkers — and Americans in general — still haven’t seen justice, and still haven’t gotten what we need. Exhaltations about how much you love America do not redeem you if in the next breath you are willing to sell New York down the river, or promote the relinquishment of the very freedoms and liberties that define us, or are happy to remain ignornant and complacent about what’s happened in the years since this day in 2001.
September 11th certainly affected all of us. Every New Yorker has their story, and in the days following it, as the bars filled up and the streets remained eerily silent, those stories were murmered and shared in back corners and semi-anonymous spaces. But more often, they didn’t have to be. I don’t remember a lot of what happened on that day, but I do remember walking around Manhattan in the days afterward and the thick sense of solidarity, the way that people on the street would make eye contact and their faces would soften in mutual understanding. No one smiled, no one laughed, but no one yelled or honked their horns, either.
And so I hate the stories. I hate the competitions of who was closer, who was more connected, whose cousin’s fiancee’s sister was right there. I almost never hear these stories from actual New Yorkers, and from the people who actually were right there — and when I do hear them, it’s far more of a blood-letting or a confession than a tittilation.
I hate the movies, the re-broadcastings, the edited footage of the towers falling.
I hate the arrogance of the people who think that watching it on TV was the same as watching it out your window or from your streetcorner, was anything akin to seeing, hearing and smelling those things that the cameras didn’t capture, or the producers edited out — the smell of burning metal and flesh, the thick haze, that moment when you remembered oh my god there are people in there, the papers from someone’s file cabinet littering the city for weeks afterwards, the people lining up to give blood only to find out it wasn’t really needed because you either made it out fairly unharmed or you were dead, every person on the street looking up and squinting against the sun (everyone seems to recall what an unusually nice September Tuesday it was), the relief in your mother’s voice when she finally got through to you, those little figures falling from the buildings before they collapsed that we all thought were birds but later realized were people jumping.
I hate the 9/11 conspiracy theorists.
I hate the tourists, the people who come and take smiling pictures outside of the World Trade Center site, the people who call it “Ground Zero” and show up with their fanny packs and their comfortable walking shoes and see it in between their checklist stops at Wall Street and the Statue of Liberty. I generally avoid that area of downtown, but occassional trips to Century 21 bring me across the street and at no other time do I feel such rage toward otherwise fairly harmless individuals. I want to shake them and scream, this is a graveyard! It is not a tourist attraction, and it is not a souvenir shop, and every person buying or selling “9/11: We Will Never Forget” laminated placques and t-shirts and snowglobes and other kitsch makes me angry beyond belief. Every person who shows up in their khaki shorts and their I Heart NY t-shirt leaves my fists clenched. That site is not just a big hole in the ground. There are pieces of human beings in there. There is blood in that ground. There are teeth, bone fragments, ashes, burned and buried flesh. There are body parts in there.
I hate the statements about how “September 11th changed everything” when they come from people who have no idea about the little ways in which our lives have shifted. Low-flying planes are particularly frightening. Sometimes there are loud noises or dull roars that feel too familiar, and that make my blood run cold. I can’t board an airplane without picturing it crashing. The other day I was walking down the street and saw two people talking on their cellphones and looking upwards — and I froze, scared to look up and see what they were staring at. When I’m riding the subway I’ll occassionally think, “this would be such an easy target.”
I hate how September 11th has been twisted to suit particular political aims, how thousands of tourists can come to this city every day and walk out with their heads still deep in the “Saddam-did-it” sand, how so many people can somehow justify a war in Iraq on the backs of dead New Yorkers. I think Hell has a special place for the people who carried out the attacks, and for the network of individuals who supported, enabled and encouraged them. It infuriates me that five years later we still haven’t caught the main person behind them, but we’re waist-deep and billions of dollars into a conflict that had absolutely nothing to do with the events that transpired five years ago today. It infuriates me that our government has used September 11th and manipulated our grief and our anger to support measures which are unrelated to actually stopping international terrorism and which have probably left us all more vulnerable. It infuriates me that New York remains under-protected and is consistently short-changed when it comes to anti-terrorism funding, and yet our tragedy is used to justify everything from torture to racism to imperialism to civil liberties abuses.
I hate the anniversary of September 11th because every year I inevitably feel incredibly angry, and deeply saddened.
But, at the risk of engaging in a horrible cliche, I will say that my memories of September 11th and the days following help me to restore my faith in the people of this city. The flag-waving on September 12th didn’t feel as empty as it does today; on September 12th there was a unique feeling of unity and of nationalism that was about solidarity and taking care of each other, not about vengeance or exclusion or culture wars or invasions. While the media was preemptively trying to write 9/11 into history by 9/12 — overly-conscious of the fact that this is a historical moment and you will always remember where you were when the first plane hit — New Yorkers were showing each other as much quiet kindness as we could. Blood donation lines twisted around the street for blocks. Cabbies didn’t honk their horns. Firefighters, police officers, and others were elbow-deep picking through rubble day and night, trying to bring some solace to families who had lost people, at the expense of their own health.
I try to avoid conversations about September 11th, because even five years later I don’t think I’ve really let myself connect with what happened. I don’t tell My September 11th Story because it’s irrelevant. I’ve blocked a lot of it out.
But there was goodness. I remember that.
Picture via FireDogLake, which also has a must-read post.