It was an event that crystallized in our minds the memories of where we were and what we were doing on a particular day, at a particular moment, a day that marked the end of something, the beginning of something and a shared experience with the potential to bring us all closer together or justify furious retaliatory violence against both ‘our’ enemies and the innocent. I was only a kid when the Challenger blew up, and while I remember the moment like it was yesterday, I don’t recall the date off the top of my head. September 11th, 2001 marked the occurrence of something we couldn’t find a suitable name for, so rather than calling it something like “Pearl Harbor” or “The Day the Challenger Blew Up” or “Hurricane Katrina”, we gave the events of that September 11th the day itself as its name.
Looking back 12 years later, there have been lots of other huge events which affected the world, and which killed far more people than died in the terrorist attacks on the the US that day. But the sheer scale of those attacks on 9/11, on US soil, without warning and with cameras and other equipment capturing the attacks and broadcasting them as they occurred, made that day unique for Americans. We read about places like Ireland and the Basque region of northern Spain, with their history of terrorism/guerrilla warfare, and we certainly hear plenty about Israeli’s and Palestinians lobbing bombs at each other, something that has gone on ever since before I was born. But those things just didn’t happen here. We had the occasional domestic terrorist, but in a country as large as the United States most people were not affected by those earlier, smaller acts of terrorism.
But, on September 11, 2001, my modern art history professor walked into our 8am class visibly shaken and crying, and after half-articulately mumbling something about that New York City and the Pentagon had been attacked, she cancelled class leaving us to wander off and try to make sense of the day on our own as best we could. There were TVs in just about every classroom in the art building, and the rest of that morning those of us art students who stayed in the nearly empty building sat watching the still unfolding events of those attacks. I was watching the screen when a plane flung itself into the second tower and I was watching when both towers collapsed. No one who saw those broadcasts that day will forget what they saw.
Now, 12 years later, what does it mean? We launched ourselves as a nation at the terrible but chimerical and ephemeral spectre Terrorism, using our existing weapons made for conventional warfare to try to go after the people who either were responsible for the attacks (though the people who actually did the attacking were of course already dead, having died in their suicidal attacks) or attacking those who would love to be the next to attack the US. Did this approach work? My knee-jerk reaction is to say ‘of course not!’ and I do have serious reservations about the idea that our response, which increased the amount of violence and the number of violent deaths on the planet for many years after the 2001 attacks, had any sort of protective effect on our nation or its people. But really, since we can’t go back and see what would have happened if we reacted otherwise, no one can say with certainty what the absolute right response would have been. I think we were wrong, but I’m not sure there was one easy right answer.
What I think I got out of living through that day- I realized, watching those terrorist attacks and hearing what the reporters were saying, that most people in the US and in the world really don’t know much about each other or about history. And, while some of us took that to be a warning that we need to know more, and seek out more knowledge about the rest of our species throughout the world, many Americans (and many people outside the US) don’t want to know and don’t care about the rest of the world outside their own little bubble.So much of what was being said that day was so inaccurate and there was so little interest in understanding what prompted terrorists to attack us, that for me it was as upsetting hearing our nation’s responses as it was to see the attacks themselves.
I also realized in watching those events unfold what it must be like to be in any other place where terrible things happen. I can’t pretend to imagine, still, what it must have been like to be in Southeast Asia when the 2004 tsunami hit, or to be in Japan during their earthquakes and tsunami (which, like 9/11 was viewable, and which I followed as it happened, thanks to twitter and youtube). I can’t quite imagine, either, what it was like for people in Ireland during the Troubles, living every day in a world where guns and violence were somehow normalized. But, perhaps, after 9/11/2001 I at least have some sort of reference point to help me understand the way other people experience huge, terrible events and ongoing terrorist violence.
Rather than use 9/11 as an excuse every year to rally around the flag in a jingoistic flurry, or to wallow in grief at the deaths of a few thousand Americans to whom I have no direct connections, I prefer to use this day as a time to reflect on how we as a species can support each other when terrible things happen. Off screen, as the 9/11 attacks occurred and the world reacted, Americans around the world were given such amazing support and sympathy by the people around them, and even in countries that ‘hate us’, there were rallies of support, as the good people of the world made the distinction between the US as a hegemonic superpower and the American people as human beings in need of support. One day, maybe, we can manage as a species to find this amazingly powerful sense of our common humanity not as a response to massive tragedies but as a daily way of life, for all of us.