Saturday, September 3, 2011

9/11, Ten Years Later

Do you remember where you were on September 11, 2001? Of course you do. Odds are you remember every little detail.

Do you remember where you were on September 10, 2001? Just one day prior? I'm willing to bet you don't, except as it connects to a 9/11 memory.

But how can this be? It's only one day further in the past. What 9/11 is an example of is called flashbulb memory. When something hugely important or surprising happens in your life, or you get an earth-shattering piece of news such as 9/11, what happens is that everything in the vicinity at the time gets seared into your memory like a branding iron. Your brain knows something huge is happening, isn't quite sure what details are important and which aren't, and doesn't have the time to sort it all out, so it just records everything and spends the rest of your life telling you 'You are not forgetting any of this because this is HUGELY IMPORTANT', even when some of the details are really rather unimportant.

Which means I don't need the upcoming anniversary to remember it. In fact, for what we're doing today, I'd rather hold the anniversary today, so as to avoid the actual date taking me to a different emotional place than that where I intend to go.

On 9/11, I was in high school. Junior year. (For some reason, last year I said I was a sophomore. That's one of the pitfalls of flashbulb memory: it's still memory, and not perfect.) I was in something of a rush to get going; my mom had work early that day and we were kind of hurrying to get breakfast down and get everybody out the door. As it happened, we should have stood in bed.

It was second period when I saw what was going on; the attacks were already underway. I forget what second period was, because on that day the class was irrelevant. We spent the entire class just watching, shocked and unbelieving. It's during that hour the towers fell.

Third period science didn't have a TV. The teacher asked me how things were developing. I told her. She told me to stop exaggerating.

Fourth period was the school paper. A TV was available there too. Here we found about about planes 3 and 4. We didn't know that those were the last ones, so we went to lunch wondering how many more there were going to be. The rest of the day, the remaining classes were spent wavering between trying to press on and get something done and realizing that it's just not going to happen today.

I came home and tried to find something non-attack-related on the air. It wasn't to be. There was no escape. Networks across the dial had rerouted to news networks or related whatever it is they were doing to the fallout of the attacks. Several of those who had no connection whatsoever, such as the Food Network, simply suspended programming.

The next day, we all went to "homeroom". "Homeroom" was a certain classroom we were assigned to for some sort of purpose that was never well explained because we never went to our homerooms and didn't have our classes there. There, we watched more TV, saw the frantic, panicked responses and the unconfirmed reports and a news ticker full of the most frightening-looking headlines. 8,000 dead, perhaps. Requests for body bags. Security closures of everything from the Statue of Liberty to the Sears Tower to Disneyland to Mount Rushmore to the Mall of America. The smoke still hadn't really cleared, to say nothing of our heads.

In homeroom, the guy next to me was gleeful that we were going to "nuke the towelheads". Even though we were already clued in as to who had done it, even in the emotion of the moment, I remember cringing at this comment.

For a week after the attacks, the news operated in a grim feedback loop, as the attack played out from all possible camera angles and the planes hit the World Trade Center again and again and again. Eventually, it got to the point where I felt almost nauseous watching the news or reading the paper. Slowly, the rest of my countrymen hit their own personal breaking points as well, and slowly, we resolved to try and resume our lives.

In the wake of the attack, America came together as one as we rarely have in our history. What came of that oneness is to say the least questionable, but we were, however fleetingly, one.

Which leads me to now.

Ten years later, we are not one at all. We fight bitterly and angrily over everything worth arguing about. The man who caused 9/11 is dead by our hand, but it only brought us together for a few days, and even then not entirely so. One imagines that if a 9/11-type event were to happen today, it would not bring us together, but merely create one more fight. The anniversary of 9/11, I fear, will not even cause the fleeting moment of unity at all. I fear that it will devolve into an argument over what happened in the aftermath, what should and should not have been done in the aftermath, and completely forget the fact that we once all looked at each other as fellow countrymen to be helped in our collective hour of need, instead of an enemy to be defeated even if by self-destructive means. And it will be an argument warped by the imagery of that one terrible day, which will just make the combatants all the louder and more emotionally heated.

This is why I do my 9/11 remembrance now. I'd like you in your natural state, without that imagery to deform your perceptions. Because I have an exercise for you, designed to force you to think about just how much sense of brotherhood we have lost.

Imagine a scale measuring that brotherhood, running from zero to 100. At zero, you have the aftermath of 9/11, in which Americans consoled each other, hugged each other, figured that whatever our differences, we're all in this together.

At 100, you have the mood in America at the time of the firing on Fort Sumter that began the Civil War. Irreconcilable differences, secession, war, brother killing brother.

Your exercise is simple. Look around at America today, and tell me where, on that scale, you think we stand now.

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