Where were you? On memory and collective processing of September 11th, 20 years later

September 11th was about three weeks into my first year of college. I was 18 years old, living on my own for the first time with strangers in an un-airconditioned, 6 story brick oven of fellow underclass students on the southern campus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. I had a new blue AT&T cellphone but had not called [let alone texted] anyone on it yet but my parents. I had had not learned the campus bus schedule yet, or figured out what I liked to do at college or who my friends were.

But you have to say where you were.

On the morning of 9/11, when the first plane hit the first tower, I was asleep in my lofted bed when the landline rang. My first class was at 10 am, so there was no reason to be awake at 8 [I was in college]. The phone was on top of the TV so I could reach it without getting up. 

“Turn on the TV!” my very new friend on the 6th floor yelled into the phone.  “A plane has crashed into the World Trade Center!” I must have hung up. I must have turned on the TV, a 15 inch that only had network channels. Probably it was already on NBC since there were only 5 or so stations.

As I turned on the TV, my roommate was waking up. There we were, two 18-year-old girls in our underwear staring at live coverage of the second plane hitting the second tower. It was all blurry for a while. Somehow we knew enough that there was also a plane that had hit the Pentagon. They must have said this while we watched but  I don’t remember. One of my suite mates’ fathers worked in the Pentagon. That suite mate was crying, because of course she was crying. 

As newly minted adults, we had no idea what to do so we put on our clothes, brushed our teeth and hair [surely we ate something?] and walked the mile north to Main Campus and our 10 am French class. I probably had the headphones of my Sony Discman around my neck. Instead of listening to music like I usually did I listened to the other students. Those who had been in 8am classes – the sort of classes that freshmen get stuck with – had been sitting in class and missed the whole thing. They were headed back to their dorms, or to their next class or to get breakfast and I heard the wave of us walking north intersect the wave of them walking south and the news mixing in the middle right near the football stadium.

This is the part where, when we share our “where were you story” I stop. Because this is the part where it gets more realistic and less metaphoric. And these stories are for sharing the fear and the grief of what we didn’t know, about how we felt vulnerable or angry, or numb. But on the day what we felt was mostly what we felt as individuals and less what we remember feeling from the remove of history and tragedy.

The part of this that is the hardest to understand from our current remove is that there were no smartphones. There was nothing to know about what had happened other than what the network news said. It was 9:45, the network news had said almost nothing.

“They think it’s the Palestinians,” I heard someone say. I wondered who “they” was and how they knew it was the Palestinians. How they had had time to know anything. It was of course not the Palestinians.

“Why would anyone do this to us?” And I wondered who “us” was, since it was clear that we were not in New York or the Pentagon. Other people jumped to this being about us as a nation before I did. This idea was hitting me right then, and if “us” was the country, I remember thinking very clearly that I could imagine dozens of reasons why “they”  would attack “us.”  I wasn’t even a person who really consumed news yet, and still I had some ready examples of why any random group of people out there could find a reason they thought compelling enough to hijack airplanes and crash into towers. It occurs to me now that probably some of my fellow students didn’t know what the World Trade Center was or what the Pentagon did, but I did know. 

It never occurred to me to call anyone.

I conjugated some verbs. J’etudie. I must have eaten lunch. Je mange.

In the Pit, the area around the main dining hall and the book store where students congregate, they rolled out TVs from the bookstore and student center. On AV carts, the same AV carts that we had used in high school when we had to watch a video. The same AV carts that my social studies teacher had borrowed from the school library when our class watched the OJ Simpson verdict come in. This was the last real-time cultural event I had witnessed with a group. We did not watch Columbine. They locked us in our classrooms, as if school shootings were instantly contagious [it’s a delayed transmission]. The cords stretched up the steps and into the bookstore. Students stood in the pit watching the screens and not moving. Some of them cried but some of them were eating.

There was no announcement that I heard. They did not cancel classes. There was not a way to tell us what to do. No push notifications like the ones I got during the January 6th insurrection telling me that the Capitol was under siege.

I went to my 12:30 class. Environmental Science. Some sporty-bro type guy asked the professor if he was going to cancel class. The bro’s tone of voice was sort of light, almost humored, like “we’re all looking for an excuse to not have to care about environmental science and this is it.” But then the prof said, “we will have class today. Our learning will not be interrupted because that is what they want. We’re having class or the terrorists win.”

This is how I learned there were terrorists. That there was a word for people who have attacked you when they don’t have the might of another country’s military behind them. This is also how I learned that there were things that we were expected to do to defeat them and for me one of those things was to not skip class.

Twenty years is a long time. I have checked my journals for this day and I didn’t write anything. I was not as disciplined a writer then because I was basically still a child. The event goes unmentioned between the 8/30 unpacking of the upsetting events surrounding my parents dropping me off at college and a 9/15 lament about an ex-boyfriend who I missed because I was lonely in my new home. As an 18 year old I was as self-centered as anyone and I think that I didn’t write on 9/11 because the emotions that I felt on that day were not strong enough to feel as life changing as being lonely at college, at being hurt by my family. Back then I mostly only wrote for self-soothing. 

I do not have transcripts of the news programs I watched that day, what stations they were, what I thought based on what they said. That I remember anything about day is of course only because it was September 11th. There are hundreds of other contemporary days that, even though they were foundational in the creation of my adult self, have moved into the subconscious background. Memories are the sort of things that solidify only in the telling of them, in recalling them, in holding them up to yourself as “what happened” and the superimposition of the “you” at each point of recall is conveniently forgotten when that memory is re-encoded in long term memory.

When most people tell their “where I was story” for 9/11 they are always superimposing things on the story that they could not have known on the day, but you can’t go around correcting people’s primal memories of the day that changed American forever. That is considered pretty rude. Apparently the number of people who honestly believe they saw the first tower fall on TV is pretty high, but it was not broadcast because there was of course no live feed of a building that we didn’t know was about to be attacked for networks to patch into and air. We know those memories were false, but we sort of cling to them. 

When people tell their “where I was story” there is a point where they jump from their initial stunned reaction to the point where they decided what the events meant. For a lot of people this jump is several weeks. I say most people, but I know that people who were in New York have a different reckoning all together, being told that everything they were breathing in was safe, being actually traumatized because they saw the real planes and the real bodies and really lost people. But the rest of us are reacting to a trauma on TV, of the closeness to a tragedy that feels like it happened to us, but in reality was about as visceral as watching a film about it. Watching a traumatic event feels traumatic, but it’s a sympathetic, empathetic response. Those of us watching the film version of 9/11, experienced the event through a news filter and that filter told us what happened, told us how to feel about events that we did have initial feelings about, though we may be unable to remember them.

Preserve the American way of life or the terrorists win. They hate us because of what we are and our greatness. We can show them if we just refuse to change who we are. I am still perplexed by this. How did we know that the right response was to treat the terrorists like they were the enemy instead of some specific bad actors? If we were the greatest nation on earth wasn’t the best thing to do mourn the dead, clean up the wreckage and move forward continuing to be great? 

I was not a real adult on that day. I don’t think that I knew I was supposed to watch the President speak to the nation on TV. I know that he did and that every time something vaguely awful happens you have to go find out what the president is telling you to think about it. Now, if you hate the president you decide to believe the opposite and if you love the president you have your marching orders, but then even if you didn’t care for the president [and I didn’t, though I had not been old enough to vote for Gore], you still listened. We still respected the office. I heard what the President said later, perhaps a few days later, and his first words echoed what my professor had said, “Today, our fellow citizens, our way of life, our very freedom came under attack in a series of deliberate and deadly terrorist acts.” 

Is that what happened on September 11th? Did they attack our freedom? Did they attack symbols of our freedom? Did the World Trade Center and the Pentagon symbolize our freedom or did they symbolize the center of our stronghold on global trade and our military power to subdue those who stand between us and our economic interests? Asking for 330 million friends. I think that this framing of the events is what made us all think it was our “freedom,” that was under attack that made no space to think that it could have been anything else.

On the specific day, I was not shaken to the core in the way that I think everyone wants to remember being. I knew it was my generation’s “where were you when Kennedy was shot?” moment, but I think I thought we were all supposed to feel devastated by the loss of the people. That it was a large tragedy, not that it was a metaphor. I was not alive in 1963 so I don’t know if people felt that Kennedy’s death was a metaphor for our nation’s freedom [or other intrinsic value, “youth,” “innocence,” “promise”?] on the day that he was shot. To hear my grandparents tell it, it was just the most shockingly sad thing they had ever witnessed. My mother at that time in elementary school, said it was the only time she remembered her father crying. Sure, Kennedy was himself a metaphor for a lot of things and a literal figurehead, but I wonder sometimes how we all knew to be sad instead of to look for the enemy.

Though I new it was a terrible tragedy, I already knew that bombings happened all the time in the Middle East and sometimes even in Europe and that we’d had them too. I remembered Oklahoma City and the first World Trade Center bombing. I remember watching the US bombing of Afghanistan on October 7th on the news and thinking that it didn’t make sense to me that we were bombing another country and sending our soldiers there because some terrorists – not all from that country – had crashed planes into buildings in our country. It felt wrong to me, like a disproportionate response. If the IRA had bombed Boston would we have bombed Ireland? But by the time I was with my family for Thanksgiving – a family I had barely spoken to since August – they were all deeply expressive of their own anguish, their feelings of personal loss, and their fear about our way of life under attack. And though they were all New Yorkers technically they were not there on that day any more than I was. They had all seen televised 9/11 from the same lens that I had.

But I could tell that I was wrong in my opinion because everyone wanted to bomb them – Hillary Clinton was agreeing with George W. Bush. She would also later agree to the Patriot Act and bombing Iraq. Things that were even more perplexing than attacking Afghanistan but still all about a very specific idea of “freedom” that we were all to understand was under attack [from the outside]. All the real adults thought this was the sort of stuff that you went to war over. Real adults who had told me how wrong the Vietnam war was over a decade of dinner tables. Because I assumed that I was naive and young, an opinion that they surely would have agreed with had I tried to argue my position, I didn’t really talk to my family about it. This was just another thing that I was wrong about. They were clearly right because a) America is a good and strong nation, b) we were attacked for no reason and deserved to defend ourselves. And I scratched my head and wondered where this good and strong nation was during the class war [the war I knew the most about] or the race war.

It remains pretty unpopular to say things like, “I get why they attacked us on 9/11.” Because of the sacredness of the loss of those people in the towers, no one is able to separate out grief over those people – who I do grieve – from the righteousness of what we did next. Not very well. We were too emotional, a nation too scarred, a nation primed to be told how to feel and what to do. 

I grieve a lot of people. The list gets longer every year. Most of those people don’t get a day of remembrance that could have been about them but is instead about a nation’s misplaced self-righteousness.

A few months after the September 11th attacks, the university had a memorial where they printed out slips of paper with the names of the dead on them. They made a giant spiral out of white stones to represent each person. To interact with the memorial you received a stone and a slip. Mine says, “John Collins, 42, New York, NY” and I still have it and the stone. I never knew Mr. Collins at all, but I think of him and the others who lost their lives on that tragic day often.

I am sorry that you died. 

Two commemorative 9/11 pins. The first a pewter World trade Center with a black ribbon. The second the skyline of New York with the Twin Towers set again an American flag background with the date 9-11-01. A slip of paper reading "John Collins, 42, New York, NY."
Mr. Collins’s life is commemorated in a college decoupage project. You deserved so much better, sir.

That Thanksgiving, my grandmother gave me two commemorative 9/11 pins. This was so that I could understand this terrible mark on me and our country because of other people’s hatred of us. The talk over dinner about how the terrorists hated us was so thick, maybe thicker than the grief. I did not put the pins on my bag with my other pins though. It felt cheap somehow, like I was trying to make the whole thing about me, that I was looming over the personal tragedies of 2,996 people and their families and turning them into the justification of our continued bad behavior abroad. I did not have the words to say that, so I just said “thank you.”

I will never say those people deserved to die because that is not what I mean or what I believe. I understand why people were angry enough to kill those people to try to tell our nation something about our foreign policy. And I also know that I could have told them not to bother, because we were not going to do better. Terrorism is, admittedly not the way that you tell bullies to be nice. Not when those bullies have the ability to levy taxes for a $700 billion defense budget. It doesn’t make them want to hear your piece. It was the wrong thing to do. But it was also the wrong thing to take the events of September 11th and make them about further imposing our nation’s agenda on other peoples.

I wonder sometimes what would have happened if Al Gore had been president in 2001 [like he was supposed to be]. I don’t know that we would have done a different thing than what we did do and we don’t live in that world so it’s not wise to speculate. But I wonder what he would have said, would it have been “America was targeted for attack because we’re the brightest beacon for freedom and opportunity in the world. And no one will keep that light from shining.” If no one had told us these things, would we all have known to think them? Even in 2001, at the age of 18, not being that politically astute, I knew that “we’re the brightest beacon for freedom and opportunity in the world” was a conditional statement for many, many of my fellow Americans. Something my father would have grumbled was, “a crock of shit,” over his TV dinner had it been said on not 9/11.

I don’t think “we” – whoever that is – framed the national discussion as well as we might have. “We will make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbor them” is some intense shit to say while people are still in shock. Still in grief. We still do this sort of thing for less than innocent reasons. We still get our emotions about horrible atrocities hijacked by people who want to start wars and who would seek to control us. I don’t think anymore that the right thing to do was to go to class on that day, to be told that the only way to defend America [a country that was not precisely under attack in the first place]  was to continue our way of life so the terrorists didn’t win. I think the right thing to do was to prevent the conditions in our foreign policy that led to the formation of international terrorist cells in the first place. And sometimes I think the terrorists did win.

It is clear to me that on this, the 20th Anniversary of the September 11th attacks, I am supposed to keep these things to myself. I am supposed to pretend that the events we set in motion in response to that day didn’t end so many more innocent lives, didn’t launch a forever war that we are struggling as a nation to understand why we fought, why we stayed, why and how we left. I wish that those 2,996 lives had been a different kind of martyrs. That rather than responding to violence with violence, we had realized that the violence was in response to our violence.

I am to understand that on a national day of mourning, no one wants to give any space to a person who says, “but it’s more complicated than this.” No one has wanted to hear it the last 20 years and they will not want to hear it today. But this simplistic, sound-byte based, universal truth, Never Forget mentality doesn’t let our nation heal or admit our faults or behave differently. If we can’t be a little more honest, can’t lean into slightly more nuance, we’re going to keep walking around thinking that we’re the greatest victims the world has ever seen when in reality, we’re pretty big bullies on the global stage.

Perhaps more importantly, this way of behaving persists in the choices that we are making now. We continue to tell much of our national story through a lens of victimhood and vengeance. It erodes our empathy and makes all conflict about winners and losers and the struggle to not be the losers. It has no room for us to ever say, “I did something wrong” because it is too invested in the story that we are a great nation, and great nations don’t make mistakes, ergo everything our nation has ever done was the right the thing to do. This is a path that we cannot continue on. 

I am not a person who thinks that the only reason that great tragedies happen is so there can be a lesson or a silver lining. I don’t believe that the death of 2,996 people would have been a fair exchange for our nation to grow and become better and I would not wish to sacrifice people trying to find out if we could learn something true about ourselves and chose to behave differently. But I do feel, looking around now, that they died in vain, that we learned the wrong lesson. That we dishonor their memories and we endanger future generations. 

This is what I can never forget. It’s what I mourn today.

3 thoughts on “Where were you? On memory and collective processing of September 11th, 20 years later

  1. I am beyond over the navel gazing. We Americans behave as though we are the only ones to have lost loved ones in a terrorist attack. We kill each other on a scale far beyond those we lost twenty years ago. Which isn’t to say it wasn’t tragic, it was. But we have not grown around our grief, we beat each other about the head and shoulders if we don’t show proper performative shrieking and pulling out our hair. This event has become our national identity, and our response is the flag we’ve draped ourselves in.

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    1. I was 28, asleep on the West Coast. Husband number two woke me up to tell me someone flew a plane into the WTC. My response was something along the lines of “of course they did.”

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      1. If I had been 28 I would have had the equipment to say something like, “of course they did” (I actually had it by 2003 because I remember trying to tell the “real” adults how ridiculous our invasion of Iraq was). Being from the easy coast, so much of the “where were you?” always felt like trying to get as close to having been there as possible. Like there were points for knowing someone who died or should have died. I tried this on for a few years while having discussions about the day, trying to understand what made this such a touchstone for people. My entire generation has zero experience of adulthood that is not marked by this event and I feel like almost everyone has gotten it so wrong.

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