Sunday, September 11, 2011

For something completely different

All day, I've been trying to find the words that would express my feelings today. Facebook has been full of people recollecting where they were when they heard the news. As Snarky Writer said yesterday, for our generation, 9/11 is our version of when JFK was assassinated. I've had so many thoughts running through my head today, and as the day went on, I remembered details from that day ten years ago that had left me.

I slept late on purpose this morning. If I was awake during the memorial service, I would have felt compelled to watch. This was probably a good decision. As it was, my husband played President Bush's speech from the Flight 93 memorial dedication yesterday, and I began to cry. In some ways, I feel guilt for not watching, but I knew that to watch would mean that I would spend most of the day fighting off depression and panic attacks.

I was sitting playing my guitar the morning of September 11th, practicing a fingerstyle version of Chet Atkin's "Happy Again" when my mother shouted for us to turn on the tv. She'd just gotten an email from my grandmother, who was watching the morning news in her classroom. I turned on the television just in time to see the second plane hit the south tower. I remember the panic in my mother's voice--where was my grandfather? He flew every single week for work--was he okay? He had gotten to where he was going the day before--Carthage, Missouri, I think. He rented a car and drove home that weekend. That was the first concern alleviated.

I can't remember exactly what I felt at that moment--the realization that someone had done this on purpose. I remember watching in utter horror, hand over my mouth. I remember the NBC reporter, who was talking on the phone to the anchor desk, stopping mid-report in shock before picking back up to say that there had been an explosion in the building where he was--the Pentagon.

My mother called my dad to discuss whether or not she would take my brother and I to school that day. It was our first semester in college, taking classes part time, but there was an additional complication. The university we attended was only miles away from the facility the United States uses to store and destroy chemical weapons. Many students had no idea it was there; my mother had worked at the depot at one point, though, and it was now obvious that we were under some sort of coordinated attack.

The first tower fell before we left for school. I grabbed my dad's television Walkman and took it with us on the half-hour ride to school. On route, the second tower fell. I sat in the middle seat of the van, holding the walkman in my left hand, right hand covering my mouth and crying.

My history class was a shock to me that day. Only half the class showed up, and those of us who were there weren't sure we should be. When our history teacher showed up, he posed the question "Are you sure we don't deserve this?"

He doesn't teach there anymore.

My mother and my youngest brother sat in the student center. The university had set up big screen televisions, and campus dining was setting out sandwiches, cookies, and soda for students who could not tear themselves away. Walking to the student center to meet my mother, I looked up into the sky, where all our terror had come from and saw military fighters patrolling overhead--again, because of the depot. Over the next four days, those fighters were the only things we saw in the sky other than clouds--the blue remained otherwise uninterrupted by vapor trails.

That night, my parents finally sent me to bed about ten-thirty. We'd watched the news all day, and the president's speech--my homework had remained undone. I slept with the light on, and poorly. I don't think that I was the only one in our house who did.


The days, weeks, and months that followed, I remember less clearly and measure more by events than anything else. The television channels were all either switched to coverage of the rescue and recovery efforts or they had ceased programming for the rest of the week. I remember "shock and awe" in October. I remember watching Colin Powell brief the UN on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction and watching the first waves of troops roll into Baghdad. I remember having to wash my hands every time I went out to get the mail, fearing anthrax, and I remember my parents buying plastic sheeting and duct tape on the recommendation of the director of homeland security (plastic sheeting which was later used to protect the mattress when one of our pugs decided she needed to have her puppies in the middle of my mother's bed). My uncle served two tours in Iraq. I know a lot of other people who have served as well.


On 9/11, I knew little about Islam. I think that I knew that Muslim extremists had been responsible for the attack on the U.S.S. Cole. I knew that they had fought against the Christians during the Crusades. I knew that the Qu'ran commanded that Muslims respect the other people of the book--Jews, Christians, and at the time, Zoroastrians.

I had no idea of the difference between Shiite and Sunni, between a hijab and a burka (or that there was even such a thing). A 'haboob' was not in my vocabulary. I didn't know anyone who was Muslim.

That's changed over the years. I have several Muslim friends, and I've had Muslim students. I love walking through campus and seeing the girls in their hijabs in every color of the rainbow. I've been angry on behalf of the Muslim community in this town and their fight to get their new mosque built, and I've been angry every time in the last few months I've heard a discriminatory comment aimed at one of these women wearing hijabs. They're easily identifiable, so they're easy targets for both lewd and racist comments.

I hope that I've learned the difference between Muslims and extremists, just as I hope the Muslim community has learned the difference between Christians and extremists, because both communities have them.


In the few weeks after September 11th, I couldn't bring myself to play "Happy Again" on my guitar. After all, how could any of us ever be happy again? I put it away, thinking to myself that I would pull it back out when they caught Osama bin Laden. Surely it wouldn't take too long, right? We were America!

But of course, we were America, and no one should have attacked us either.

Years passed. I turned 18, then 21. I graduated college, got my master's degree, and began work on my doctorate. I went through a couple of serious relationships before I found the one that would be forever and married him. My parents celebrated their silver anniversary. When the news finally came that Osama bin Laden was dead, I thought about "Happy Again." Even if I'd known where to find the sheet music for it, I don't think I could have played it. There were so many emotions that day, but not one of them was happiness. I still haven't found it again. I don't think I ever will.


I've often wondered if there's been a day that's gone by in the last ten years where I haven't thought about September 11th. I'm sure that there have been days when I've not thought about it in explicit terms, but I don't think that there's been a day when I haven't thought about something that has been directly affected by that day.


I could go into the political, but I won't.


I cannot help but wonder what we've lost as a country. Not only in lives and the potential of all those lives that were lost that day and that have been lost following, but in our own American innocence. My husband talks about the idea of American exceptionalism--the idea that we are the best at everything. I wonder if that's not true anymore.


One of my friends and colleagues posited a question once. We lived in a postmodern age that largely, if blurrily, began at the end of World War II. In the new information age, she wondered if we were entering into a new post-postmodern age that would be demarcated from September 11th, if the event had such a profound impact on us as a society that we could not help but enter a new era, not jut historically, but philosophically as well. Ten years later is probably too early to tell, but I think she might be right.


In a measure of how fearful we have become, this post was interrupted by a sound from behind our house that sounded very much like an explosion. My husband saw a flash. I ran downstairs, heart pounding, and locked the deadbolts behind him as he drove around to take a look. Nothing seemed to be amiss. I can't imagine that targeting an apartment complex in middle America would be an attractive opportunity, but for a brief moment, that fear shook my very being. It was still September 11th, after all.

Conquering fear is what makes men courageous. I don't know if we have succeeded in this in the last ten years. We have reacted to fear, in many ways, rather than conquering it. But that gets into the political again, and I said I wouldn't do that.


For God hath not given us a spirit of fear; but of power, of love, and of a sound mind. - 2 Timothy 1:7

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