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9/11, 2006

9/11, 2006

I wasn’t really sure if I should write anything today. Overall I think too many people say too many things about 9/11 that they shouldn’t. But I do feel that an important aspect of coming to terms with events (all evens whether traumatic or not) is to talk about them. The more I think about it, the more I feel that the people who have been talking about 9/11 have, for the most part, not been focusing on the right things.

Recently I was trying to figure out why I was so annoyed by the release of the films United 93 and World Trade Center. At first I assumed that my problem was that the events were too sacred to be made the subject of a movie. But really that isn’t it. If anything I’ve been frustrated by the knee jerk way that the “sacredness card” has been used to limit expression1. My problem, I realized, was that what has dominated the discussion so far has been head on rehashing of the attacks, the response, and what we should think about them. I’m not interested in rehashing the events. I experienced the events (albeit at a remove). We all experienced the events (albeit most at an even greater remove than I). I don’t need someone to tell me how heroic or tragic or evil or grand or anything the attacks and the response to them were. I certainly don’t need someone to fictionalize or dramaticize them. And I don’t need someone to tell me what it should mean to me or that it “changed everything.” That’s not my story and it isn’t a story that I’m ready to take an alternate view of. Any story I see about it will inevitably be filtered through my own memories. And I’m going to be distrustful of the motives of anyone trying to use 9/11 to make a point. I don’t want to participate in any of that.

Daniel Mendelsohn2 recently wrote an article in The New York Review of Books that partially addresses this. He starts with his own recollection of the morning of September 11, 2001, when, seeing the plane hit the north tower, he made a call to a friend to tell her to turn on the TV:

But of course there was nothing to see on the TV yet. The amazing thing had just taken place; there was no coverage yet, no media, no commentary, no evaluation, no interpretation. It was just the raw event. What had just happened had not yet become the story of what happened.

He goes on to look at how these two movies have attempted to tell the story of 9/11 and have largely failed due to their attempts to stick to a flat “real” recreation of the events that failed, intentionally, to place the events of 9/11 in greater context.

You could write a real tragedy, a Greek tragedy, about September 11 and what it has led toÄîa story with a true Aristotelian arc, a drama with a beginning that leads organically to a middle that leads organically, reasonably, to its inexorable end. This tragedy could, for instance, be about the seemingly inevitable way in which even the greatest empires can be thrown into confusion by a small number of enemies whose ideological fervor makes them unafraid of death. Or it could be about a specific empire, one whose contemptuous refusal to take its enemies seriously has made it deeply vulnerable. Or it could say something about a foolish and unseasoned autocrat whose desire to outshine his more accomplished father has an unfortunate effect on his policymaking, with the result that he ends up seeming even more foolish and unseasoned in comparison to his father. Or it could be about the seemingly irreducible strangeness of the West to the East, and vice versa. Or it could even be a kind of black farce (a genre not strange to Greek tragedy) about the injustices of autocracyÄîabout a ruler so inept that he brings his country to ruin and yet never suffers, personally, for his errors.

Why do we need to make a direct recreation of the events of 9/11? I find it hard to believe that anyone in this country doesn’t know the basic facts. If they don’t, or don’t know enough, I would certainly prefer that they be informed by a study such as the 9/11 report, then by a work of historical fiction. And if these movies aren’t for education, and don’t give a grander context, then they are for entertainment only, and that, I do believe, is inappropriate.

But I do think that we need to talk about 9/11. We need to in order to figure out what it means to us, what it means to our neighbors. To build a national consensus about how we feel about 9/11 and how we should remember it. To build the story of the day. To prepare ourselves to put the events, and perhaps more importantly, our memory of the events in a greater context.

To do that we have to share our own stories. Stories that I think many of us have been reluctant to share in public because they seem so insignificant and unimportant compared to the stories of the people more directly impacted by the attacks. Why, I wonder, weren’t the first major movies about 9/11 movies that drew on personal experience and saw the events from a short distance. Movies about people impacted by the events rather than people who participated in them. After all, these are the stories that most of us can relate to, and the stories that could help us deal with our own impressions. This year for the first time in my imperfect recollection, this kind of story is receiving similar attention in the media as stories about the events themselves3. This is also important to me because I’ve realized that I, personally, have very little understanding of how other people experienced the events, even people I was and am very close to.

So, in spite of my reluctance to even touch the subject, I’ll do my part. Here are my recollections of September 11, 2001. I save all my email and being a pretty bad journal writer, I find that it acts as a sort of primary source journal for my own life and a window into my state of mind at the time. One of the first things that I did this morning was to go back and read through the emails that I received on that day.

September 11, 2001 occurred just before the start of classes of Sasha’s and my senior year of college at Princeton. On the night of the 10th, Sasha had a birthday party (her birthday is September 6). Although we wouldn’t start dating for another six months, she was one of my best friends, so I stayed with her through what turned into a very stressful night. One of our friends ended up locking himself in the bathroom and after everyone departed Sasha and I eventually convinced him to open the door. He was sick and lying on the floor. It has never been entirely clear to me what happened, I don’t think it is very likely that he actually had enough alcohol to make him sick, certainly not as sick as he was. I’ve since had food poisoning, and my reaction to that seems much more like what happened to him than the various brushes with too much alcohol that I’ve observed or experienced. But the bottom line was that he was sick and he had been drinking and we were worried about what to do. So eventually after failing to get him into any better shape we figured that the only responsible thing to do was to call the proctors (campus police) to get him to McCosh Health Center.

They arrived and were very reassuring and took charge of getting him safely to the health center (only a matter of meters away). However when we followed to the health center to make sure that he was ok, there was a borough police officer waiting there (something that we were pretty sure was not supposed to happen so as to not scare idiot undergrads into abandoning their drunken comrades in need of help). She gave Sasha a very hard time even saying that she would have to talk to her supervisor about whether or not they were going to press charges of some kind.

After returning to Sasha’s room and calming down somewhat, I took the stained bathroom rug to a washing machine and dropped into bed in my room after writing the following email to Sasha:

So that was the context that I woke up in late on the morning of September 11, 2001. I’m not sure how late I woke up or exactly where in the course of things it was, but I’m pretty sure that the attacks had already occurred, but that people still didn’t quite know all of what had happened. My first memory is of checking my email and finding my most recent email was titled “This Morning’s Events”

I don’t think I read it very carefully. I was surprised when re-reading it that there was such a direct mention of the World Trade Center. I think I focused on the title and the mention of “events” and the availability of counseling. Something about the generality of the statements, as though whatever the events were, they were so big that she didn’t need to be more specific made me very nervous, though I still assumed at first that the “event” was something small and specific that I wasn’t yet understanding.

So I tried to find what information I could online, and that was when I began to encounter pictures. It was maddeningly difficult to get a coherent picture of what had happened, people were still putting it together in real time, and the news stories that I encountered were variously out of date. As so many people did, I remember assuming that it must have been an accident before reading further and realizing that it couldn’t have been. Eventually I must have decided that there wasn’t much more that I could do or figure out and that I should just go on with my day.

Most of the rest of my memories are packaged in little vignettes and I don’t really remember any order or even how long after 9/11 they happened. My only other real memories specifically from that day are that in lab one of the post-docs said that he had a brother who was on a business trip right then (he didn’t know the details) who often traveled to New York to do work in the World Trade Center, and he was trying to get in touch with him. I also remember trying to figure out whether the attacks were going to make it more or less likely that the police officer was going to pursue anything against Sasha. I figured that it could either burry it under the more pressing events or turn it from something just meant as a scare into a “we can’t be letting things slide right now” kind of attitude.

I remember later a friend relating how her father had been exercising in a gym in the area when the attacks occurred (he got out safely).

Sometime later in the day my mother wrote me this email:

I think that really captured the mood. The events were such a shock and so nearby that it seemed like anything was possible because what had already happened hardly seemed possible. I think I focused more on such grand things than on the more likely dangers. I felt really embarrassed later when I realized that I hadn’t even thought about the fact that I had friends living in NYC. One of them, Kate, emailed the next day to check in:

I didn’t even think of the fact that Kate was going to med school in New York City until she wrote me and yet I remember worrying out loud and somewhat seriously that the terrorists had attacked two symbols of the three biggest things that made America great: our economic power and our military power. The next could reasonably be our third great asset: our advanced research and education. It seems silly now to think that an attack on the Ivy League could follow 9/11, but at the time I didn’t know what to think, and I couldn’t simply laugh it off.

Sadly some of my worries didn’t prove as false. I remember a friend of middle eastern decent worrying about how he would be treated now. I remember being vividly concerned that this was going to be used as an excuse to crack down on law enforcement and generate a feeling that it wasn’t right to question the actions of our government. I remember worrying that this was going to realign our priorities. That in defending ourselves we were going to live like it would never be the same again, when I really didn’t want to abandon the things that I felt made America great just because we had been tragically attacked. I wanted things to be the same again. We were all worried for a while about whether it was appropriate to laugh at anything or make anyone laugh. Whether theater or art were appropriate.

And yet at the same time as I worried whether it would ever be ok to act normally again, I remember being furious at people for acting in immature ways at such an inappropriate time. A few days after the 11th there was a sold out show with a first come first served line. I was one of the first people not to make it in, and people around me were really angry at not making it in to the show. The proctors were out4 to control the crowd and a group of students were heckling them and generally disobeying them. I left disgusted and angry that people could behave so badly over such a trivial thing so soon after 9/11. I went back to a friend’s room and I remember contemplating that this could be the end of the world. That everything was falling apart.

But as many horrible things as have happened since, it wasn’t falling apart. The semester started, and I don’t really remember much of the rest of the year in the context of 9/11.

1 Especially in the year that followed 9/11, concern for violating the sacredness of the events placed all kinds of limits on what people thought it was appropriate to say or do in public, even about things completely unrelated to the events. I’m convinced that this explains, for instance, why, almost nine months later neither of our two graduation speakers filled the traditional “fun” slot. Instead we got a CEO and a former politician, both of whom spoke (in fairly bland terms) about our generation and the challenges that faced us in light of terrorism. In contrast almost every year surrounding 2002 included a noted comedian (such as Jon Stewart, Jerry Seinfeld, Bill Cosby, and Garrison Keillor).

2 Incidentally Mendelsohn is one of Sasha’s favorite professors from Princeton and she was in the class that he talks about in the article.

3 Stories that I’ve noticed include one on NPR about middle school students who recorded their reactions to 9/11, and local conversation show on the subject.

4 I remember noticing that one of the proctors was one of the ones who responded to Sasha’s room on the night of the 10th and worrying about being recognized.

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