I am writing this entry to help myself process both that day and the years since. I realize my experience was in no way as traumatizing as those who experienced it first-hand, but I think most would agree that the events of that day have affected all of us.
When I was in high school, it seemed like the world was moving forward. President Clinton may have done some stupid things in his personal life, but the budget was balanced, we were not at war, there had even been a peace agreement for Palestine and Israel. The troubles in Ireland seemed to be mostly over. Although the world possessed nuclear weapons, it seemed extremely unlikely that they would ever be used. In reading some of my favorite children's literature from earlier decades, such as A Wrinkle In Time, it seemed quaint to me that they were so worried about a nuclear holocaust. Granted, I was a naive high school student, but things were looking pretty rosy. In short, it was a time of relative peace and prosperity, at least for America.
In 2000, George Bush was elected, and it seemed things were a little fishy with that, but hey, things were fishy in Chicago when dead people helped elect President Kennedy (being half Irish-Catholic, I recognize a particular importance to his election), so I guess things were just evening out. Besides, it didn't even seem like the President really made much difference in my life.
On September 11, 2001, at 8am Central Time, I was in Houston, finishing packing up my belongings to go to college. I had the radio on as I was packing. There was a breaking news report on NPR that a plane had hit the World Trade Center in New York City. My first thoughts, along with many other people's, were, this must be some sort of terrible accident! Terrorists hijacked airplanes, bombed airplanes, but to use an airplane AS a bomb, that wouldn't have occurred to me. Nevertheless, I called out the news to my parents, who were taking care of some last-minute trip plans downstairs. We continued to go about our work, but with an ear on the news.
Not too long after came the news that a second plane had hit the second tower. Now it became clear that this was no accident. We stopped working, we went down and sat in front of the TV. There were the two towers, burning and smoking. There were the fire engines and police cars, rushing to the site. The papers floating eerily down. There were the little people, running from the building, some of them jumping. I remember thinking, "That's not an actual PERSON, is it?" as I saw the tiny figures leaping from the building. But I soon realized they WERE people. And I remember thinking that given the choice, I'd pick death by fall over death by fire, as well.
The newscasters described the events, bringing new details about a plane in Pennsylvania and another at the Pentagon. There were images of the crashed planes and the scarred Pentagon building. They kept speaking, but it was clear that they were just as confused as we were. They were simply describing what we were seeing, not explaining it. It was unexplainable.
My family sat watching, unable to take our eyes off the television. Then the unthinkable happened. The first tower collapsed in front of our eyes. Simply crumbled to dust. Then the second tower, crumbled to dust. Right then. In front of our eyes. I couldn't process it. At all. "They evacuated everyone already, right?" The newscasters didn't answer, they were just as shocked as we were. My parents didn't answer, they couldn't. "They evacuated, right?" I kept repeating, to no one in particular.
New York City now had a huge cloud of debris hanging over it, and dust began to cover everything.
Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.
But we had to keep going, we had to be in Chicago the day after tomorrow . . . I don't remember how we managed to wrench ourselves away from the TV, but we did, and we packed the car, and we started driving east and north. We listened to NPR news coverage the whole way. People put out their flags. We made and received calls from friends and relatives in the Northeast, just checking to see if everyone was OK. No one really knew what was going on or what the extent of the attacks were. We stopped somewhere in the middle of nowhere, Louisiana, where they were convinced the terrorists would attack because of the large oil reserves located there. We spent the night in a random motel, I can't even remember in what state.
A couple of days later, we drove up Lakeshore Drive in Chicago toward Northwestern. I was awestruck by the beauty of Chicago, and happy to be moving there. Northwestern was busy with freshmen moving in in time for new student week, though a good deal of us were delayed in arriving. My dorm, the International Studies Residential College, had a high percentage of students from abroad, delayed by the chaos 9-11 caused air travel. It was comforting, somehow, to see The Rock, traditionally guarded by different student groups and painted for various causes, painted as an American flag with the words "9-11-01, United We Stand."
It was also comforting to share stories with other students, and perhaps the conditions of our arrival allowed our class to bond stronger, and sooner. I remember watching a performance of the Chicago sketch/improv theater group The Neo-Futurists for the new freshman, with a piece I still remember about the 9/11 attacks, featuring drifting paper, reminiscent of the paper that floated down from the towers. That we could all sit in the auditorium and experience it together was a comfort.
It has also been a comfort to me to hear the stories of people that day, firefighters and policemen and priests and everyday civilians, who acted bravely and kindly to their fellows. Being half Irish and half Italian, half from New York and half from Boston, I felt those Irish and Italian FDNY firefighters and NYPD cops were my people, with my roots, and I was proud of them.
We all knew that the world had changed that day. But no one knew exactly how, or to what extent. 9-11 has brought us interminable wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, thousands of dollars spent. It has cost us the lives of thousands of brave soldiers. It has left many people with a hole in their family, and grief over a life unfairly taken from them.
On a more mundane level, it has brought hours in airport security lines, countless confiscated screwdrivers and nailclippers and knitting needles, 3-oz containers of liquids in ziplock bags, barefoot treks through various security machines. It meant that my first flight home from college, my parents couldn't meet me at my gate, but rather in the baggage claim. While at first it brought a surge of support for America, the interminable wars soon meant that trips to Europe made me feel uncomfortable to be an American abroad, no matter what terrible things other countries have done in their pasts. It meant recessions and instability, it meant taking a longer time to put my life together. It meant a change from optimism to pessimism, and a world that seems to continue to spiral downward. It meant an inability to work together to solve the most pressing of issues, throughout the world.
Is it possible to return to better times? In some ways, I envy the children of the Depression, who thought the world was poverty-stricken and hungry, only to find it wasn't half so bad. Instead, my generation thought things were headed forward, only to realize that we had no idea where the world was heading, and wherever it was going, it was limping and reeling. Can we yet come together to fix the earth? It remains to be seen. But I am American, and I don't give up, 9-11 or not.