By Tim Stevens
I was planning to have this done by this morning. As you can see, things did not go as planned.
Part of it, most of it I suppose, is that while I have lots of thoughts about September 11, 2001 kicking around my brain, they don’t easily line up into any sort of easy narrative to be placed on the page. I have lots of observations and so very little structure. I was honestly tempted to just scrap the whole thing and just put up a piece about Superman maybe using an abbreviation for taking the Lord’s name in vain. But that felt like a cop out, like letting myself off the hook a bit too easy. No worries though, you’ll still be able to read how I feel about that whole Superman thing later in the week.
In any case, please bear in mind my remarkable lack of cohesion in putting this together and do your best to be kind if it all feels a bit…jumpy.
In reviewing the article I wrote on the 11th and the few days that followed (which was reprinted here on Friday) I was surprised by what I do and do not remember from those days. The details…they slip away. I had forgotten about the heartbreaking makeshift signs proclaiming a solidarity that proved ever so fleeting, even more fleeting than most of America probably realized. The bomb threats, the phone call from my professor…those I had blanked on as well. Hell, I cannot even remember watching the footage live. I know I did, I must have. We were locked down, we had nothing to do but stare glassy eyed at our TV sets or try our useless phones. But I don’t remember any of it.
The feeling of it I can recall instantly. The weird conflict of wanting to just hide running up against the desire to be out there doing something, doing anything, because, well, damn, those were my cities burning on the television.
I do remember that one plane and how such an innocuous sound could be so staggering, so frightening. I remember chasing down rumors about old friends and classmates who might have been at Ground Zero and finding, thankfully, none were real. And I remember talking to my dad and finding that people he knew and worked with were there and feeling profoundly unequipped to say anything about these people I never met, that my dad probably did not know very well, who when nonetheless found ourselves missing.
In DC, September 11 became a season that blanketed the city. In actuality, the Pentagon is across a sizable body of water from DC. For most residents, there was no real threat at all. What came after was when things really began for us. The bomb threats. The anthrax. The anthrax scares. I was evacuated from where I was interning twice for suspicious packages that, thankfully, came to nothing. People interning for Senators and Representatives had to find new office spaces when the packages they received turned out not to be so empty.
My then girlfriend, now wife, had a roommate who only left the room for class and internship and spent the rest of her time relentlessly writing about her day for what she claimed was going to be a book about living in DC during those days. I look back now and realize she was very likely wrestling with what my DSM-IV refers to as Acute Stress Disorder.
And yet…I loved DC. I loved my time at American. I met my wife and now, ten years later, we have a new baby daughter. I met people who I wish I kept in better touch with me because they were great. Fun, smart, energetic…we went to class everyday and internship everyday despite what had happened, what was happening. We walked past men with guns on our way to Starbucks, we attended basement raves near hotels that let people on to the roof to see the smoldering remains of the Pentagon. I wish September 11 never happened, but I can hardly imagine my life without it. And I imagine I am hardly the only one. For good or for ill, for ten years it has been an event that many, maybe most, of us wove tightly into our clothes, our skin, our souls.
So understand when I say this I mean no disrespect. I am so ready to be done with September 11. I think we should continue to honor and mourn the heroes. I think we should build monuments to their bravery and as an affront to the hateful barbarism of that day. But I am ready to put it in the past. I have no desire for this to become my generation’s Vietnam, not in terms of an intractable war but in terms of it being the cloud that hangs over every election for years. We did a lot right after September 11 and we did a lot wrong. I know this and while you may disagree about what falls on the right and wrong sides of the equation, I imagine most of you do too.
But I don’t want to fight those battles ad nauseum. We lost so much that day, I want to be done feeding that wound. We need to stop pretending that we get the difference between people who are Christian and do terrible things and Christians in general but that we cannot seem to make our minds do the same when it comes to Muslims. We need to stop doing things to make ourselves feel safer when they don’t actually make us safer at all. We need to learn the difference between casting off naiveté and embracing suspicious cynicism.
That’s my small prayer, I suppose. Or hope, if the idea of prayer makes you uncomfortable. That we can mourn without holding on. That we can remember without reliving. That we can stop thinking of the day in the context of horror and start remembering it as a day, a time, of heroes. Because “moving on” is not forgetting. Moving on is realizing that we have as much a responsibility to the living that survived as we do to the brave that did not.
When my daughter, two months tomorrow, asks about September 11, as I am sure she will, I will tell her what happened. We will talk about terrorism and loss and ramifications that echoed for years. Because it is important to be honest about these things. But I will also tell her about college hallways filled with classmates comforting one another despite not knowing each other even a month. I will tell her about giving blood. I will tell her about men and women who ran towards fire and ash and broken concrete. I will tell her about people who tried to do something, anything, because, well, damn, those were our cities.