[Every year, I write something about 9/11 and my personal reaction to it on my own journal, but this year I thought I’d move it to Daily Dose. I’ll try to be more cogent than usual as I write – usually it ends up more of a rant than a thoughtful piece.]
It was a Tuesday.
I’d never liked Tuesdays.
My mother had dropped me off at school, and I’d gotten a little upset since I had left my lucky necklace at home. Being ten, I felt a sort of dread of facing the day, complete with sixth-grade math (already my enemy), all without my source of comfort, my lucky necklace.
During the day, something changed. They herded us all into our homerooms; the adults were being unusually quiet. After about ten minutes, though, they let us go about our business. I knew something was up, in my childlike way. I wasn’t stupid – DC was right next door, and I’d seen Independence Day. But I moved from class to class, ending up in gym. We didn’t dress out right away; they told us we couldn’t go outside for class that day. “Why not?” the chorus rose up from the sixth-graders, myself included. We couldn’t see why; it was a beautiful crisp September day, and we were still in the mode of being excited about school rather than hating the federal obligation to attend. They muttered something vague about Washington being on fire and they didn’t want us to get smoke inhalation, which of course only made me more anxious. (I know now they were concerned about the smoke from the Pentagon in nearby Arlington.) My mom worked literally a block and a half from the White House. What was happening?
They wouldn’t let us out for recess either; so I scurried back to homeroom and asked if I could use the phone. I left a long message on my mother’s work phone, telling her to call the school, that I’d heard DC was on fire, and that I was worried. She’d already gone home from work, but I didn’t know that. They wouldn’t send us home early. When I got off the bus, I practically sprinted home, my backpack thumping heavily as I ran. I was calmed a little when I saw mom’s car in the driveway, so, beginning to feel like everything was okay, I walked up and opened the door.
I was just in time to see video on CNN of the second airplane hitting the Twin Towers. I distinctly remember getting weak-kneed and asking “What happened?” It would be a while before I really understood why it had happened. In an instance of the superstition of children, I blamed myself for leaving my necklace at home. It didn’t leave my sight for years.
My next-door neighbor had been in the Pentagon, which we’d seen hit on TV. He worked in the next section over, but told us he remembered hearing a loud “Thump” as the airplane crashed into the building. My uncle had been flying that day – his plane had left from National Airport, and we were frantic until he called us from North Carolina, where the plane had diverted to, and told us he was renting a car and driving back to DC. The next day, mom went to go make sandwiches for the Pentagon rescue workers. School was cancelled, so I stayed at home, doing what kids do to make sense of senselessness. I remember watching CNN, drawing a plane crashing into a building, and titling it “World War III”. That weekend, we drove by the Pentagon. Smoke was still pouring from the gaping wound in the building’s side.
September 11, 2001 is the day that I grew up, I think. I started paying attention more, not just to the news, but to the world around me. I observe it like anyone would observe the date where so many lives were lost in one fell swoop – like the Oklahoma City bombing, say. I just don’t like what we call it. “Patriot Day”. What’s patriotism got to do with any of this? It almost sounds like we’re honoring those who did the killing – while not patriots, they were adamant in their belief that the United States was evil, the non-Islamic world was evil. I’m sorry I don’t have my copy of How To Win a Cosmic War with me at college, because Reza Aslan articulates their attitude best. The moniker “Patriot Day” implies that all who died (excluding the terrorists, of course) were proud, apple-pie-eating American patriots who bled red, white, and blue. They weren’t. Not only Americans died that day. People died that day. 11 Australians. 14 Mexicans. 28 Koreans. 24 Canadians. 24 Japanese. Dividing them into national factions just makes them a faceless group, their stories a mere curiosity. It says, “they were Americans – all of them – that’s all that matters.”
A few months ago, I went to the Newseum and explored their 9/11 exhibit. I was particularly struck by their section on New York journalist William Biggart, who saw the devastation and left the house with his camera to document what was going on; he lost his life when one of the towers collapsed. It’s haunting to see his camera, his scorched ID and press passes, some still lightly dusted with the ash from the towers, enclosed in a glass case. These are the stories we should be focusing on. We should learn the stories of everyone who died – in the towers, in the Pentagon, even the heroes – and I don’t use that word lightly – on Flight 93.
Today, I’d like to ask a special request. For one day – just one day – can we as Americans put aside the partisan bickering, those games we play over the blogs and Twitter and cable news, and behave like adults? On September 12, 2001, even if you didn’t like President Bush – my family didn’t, but we still supported him – you stood by him, as one unified nation, not left or right or conservative or liberal. We were Americans, apolitical, unified under the banner of citizenship and defiance. We would not let them break us. Partisan sniping makes us weak. We appear as fools, unable to even come to a consensus about how we should run our country.
Today, I’d like us to be able to look each other in the eyes and say civilly, “I happen to disagree with you, but I respect your point of view as valid.”
I’m sitting here at the second-oldest college in the United States, which has produced three Presidents and sixteen signatories of the Declaration of Independence. The Sunken Garden is full of tiny memorial flags planted last night by the College Republicans and Young Democrats – together.
I think there’s a lesson in that.