9/11 And the Idiocy of the Whole “where were you?” Thing

September 11, 2001 attacks in New York City: V...

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It’s t-minus two and counting until the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, which have – mostly for the worse – reshaped the United States, its people and by virtue of its over-reaching influence, the world at large.

Given the amount of fallout, it’s fitting that we stop and reflect. A lot of people died. People who had wives, partners, children, parents, siblings, friends, co-workers. The collateral damage of just the destruction of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center alone is a sorry thing to contemplate. The two wars that have mushroomed into a near economic collapse of the entire world and the paranoia that has nearly wiped up the little bit of freedom the average citizen could rightfully call their own has just compounded the tragedy exponentially.

So, I guess, it’s not out of line for even those who have never been directly in the line of the emotional blast to look back at that day and remember where they were.

We are such melodramatic creatures that the hysteria I remember from that day and the near-hysterics people are feeling at ten years out shouldn’t surprise me. Emotional drama is as contagious as any infectious disease and the number of people immune to its effects are few.

I was teaching that day. It was second period, and Becca, the teacher across the hall came up from the library and pulled me out into the hall. She was on planning period and had been chatting downstairs with the librarian, while they set up the television to record something on PBS later that day. They’d stumbled across a morning news show – I don’t remember which one – and had seen the aftermath of the first tower.

“I’ll watch your class,” she told me. “You need to go downstairs and see this.”

I left. There was just something about the look on her face that made me feel I should just do as she asked.

Downstairs the librarian was rushing about to get set up for her home room next period, but she pointed me to the television.

“You just won’t believe this,” she said. “Another plane has crashed into the World Trade Center.”

We just watched. There was nothing to say, and I saw the tower fall. The bell rang and I raced back upstairs but not before saying, “You should push the tv into your office. I don’t think the kids should see this.”

Upstairs Becca and I spoke in whispers as the kids passed between 2nd hour to home room. We filled in the other two teachers on the hall. We all agreed not to let the students know what was happening.

Within the next half hour or so, the administration in the main office had found out what was going on and discreetly instructed the staff not to let the students know what was going on. We were a neighborhood school and our kids came from working class families. Many of them had National Guardsmen in their families. It was hard not to think about what might be coming down the pipeline at them.

Throughout the day, we kept ourselves updated via the Internet and someone was always monitoring the lone television we had in the library. To my knowledge, not a single student knew about what happened until they left the building that afternoon.

I talked to my late husband at lunch. He’d heard and was worried. What if we went to war? He was young – just past draft age but that means nothing really in an emergency. The government fiddled with the draft ages during both the world wars. They can do anything they like in times of war.

I checked in with virtual friends to see if they were okay. I knew a few women living in and near Manhattan at the time. An old high school friend had in-laws in NYC. Sis’s niece lived there. Ultimately though, I knew no one who died or who knew someone who died. Aside from the run on the gas stations that evening, which I got caught up in because I was literally near empty that day and had no choice but to fill up, 9/11 didn’t affect me.

The insane aftermath did. There was so much rah-rah “we are Americans hear us roar” as the middle school where I worked collected cash and goods* for those most affected. We had assemblies up the ying-yang and ribbons and bows and flags dangled off vehicles to the point where the world seemed to be stuck in a Groundhog’s Day version of the Fourth of July.

I got tired of watching the towers fall on television. I disagreed vehemently about the invasion of Afghanistan and again about Iraq, but after a while, I stopped arguing with people about it except to say, “Someday, I will be proved right about what a bad idea these wars were.”

Mostly, I quickly got back to my life. I was still a newlywed. We were trying to have a baby. 9/11 was not my tragedy then and it still isn’t today unless one takes into account that I don’t fly anymore or that I’ve left the United States to live in Canada and feel more free here than I have at “home” for nearly a decade.

The economic crisis that stemmed in a large part from the nation’s war debts only marginally touched me when the housing bubble collapsed.** But, I would have to say that the bottom of the most bottomest lines has found me pretty much unscathed in a 9/11ish way. The decade had other tragedies in store for me. The initial shock of the event wore off quickly and I have never co-opted it as something personal because it isn’t.

There are people who have. I read a blog post last week that was written by a woman who was near hysterical about the news and media anniversary stuff. A person would have thought she was a 9/11 widow, but she’s not. She didn’t know a single person touched by the tragedy at the time and she herself was a thousand miles or more away from NYC that day. But that’s the power of melodrama and the drumbeat that was hammered into us all at the time. “This is a nation’s tragedy.” and while it’s been tragic for those who actually lost people in the Towers or the aftermath, it’s not everyone’s personal tragedy. It’s a bit nauseating when some try to glom on a bit and shake the pity tree for themselves.

Everyone has a 9/11 story but not everyone was its victim and it’s not everyone’s true tragedy. I think that might be a better way to remember it. That if it wasn’t about you, don’t make it about you in retrospect.

*So much of the money the Red Cross collected was specifically earmarked for 9/11 only that they began begging people not to specify where their donations should be spent. The Federal government covered a lot of the costs and The Red Cross really needed donations for other things more desperately. And, of course, much of the “stuff” that was collected wound up in the New York landfills. All in all so very typically American.

**I sold my house when I moved up North and lost money thanks to the housing bust.

5 responses to “9/11 And the Idiocy of the Whole “where were you?” Thing

  1. Yes, 9/11 was a national tragedy. Then our government compounded the loss 100 times over with war, the killing of thousands more innocent people, attacks on constitutional rights, and decisions that sent the economy into a downward spiral that still hasn’t recovered. On this day I ask the universe for healing in all of those areas.

  2. I could not agree more. I wondered as I sat there listening to this widow, what her late husband would say to her if he could. “Stay angry and never heal” would not be it.

    We really won the world history lottery to have been born in a time when it is even possible to share a ripe old age with a spouse, or see our grandchildren grow up. As you say, there is no discernible (to us) reason why some of us are granted that and some not. I wonder why my dad only made it to 60, who was a wonderful man, while my grandfather – well, let’s just say no one needed him to make it into his 80’s.

    I am going to hug my kids and husband all day. I think that is what most of the victims of 9/11 would have us do to honor their memories, if they could choose.

  3. I was listening to NPR today as they spoke to a widow from the WTC. In the language of the grief industry, this woman is stuck in the anger stage. She is angry about her loss, and expressed disgust at the media who will never let her forget or start to heal. Somehow she is both angry because her loss should count for more, and angry because it does.

    I found myself losing sympathy when she got to the whole “our loss means more” part of her diatribe, and moving on to dislike as she griped about how she cannot heal because every time she sees another magazine cover it somehow stymies her progress.

    I thought about how many thousands of shows, articles and commercials I have seen about cancer since my dad died. How many jokes about “you gave me a heart attack!” my dh has heard since LW passed. How many of the Ws, male and female, I have known who have had to face their losses courageously and totally without the support and well wishes of a nation.

    I turned the radio off and I think I will be watching football most of the day tomorrow.

    • It’s one of the many Catch-22’s of the widow world. I am glad I didn’t lose my first husband in something so public.Sure, there was the outpouring of sympathy and well-wishes etc, but with it came expectations. I remember the bad press one of the more prominent 9/11 widows faced when she dared to remarry within two years of her husband’s death. It’s like the public expected her to be Jackie O (and they turned on her when she remarried too). Public widowhood carries public expectations that are just as weighty as they were back in the days when women were supposed to don the long black veil for a year.

      But your observation is valid. Everyone faces reminders. However you lose your spouse, you are not special in any widow sense. Widowhood is widowhood. It sucks. You cope. And with a little luck and a lot of work, you move on.

      A lot of people get stuck in the anger and in the “it’s not fair”, “why me?” “why not those other people whose marriages weren’t as awesome as ours?” or whatever fill in the blank with whatever lament you like. There is no “why” though. There just isn’t. If there are reasons, and I think that there are but I haven’t any creed or spiritual system to back me up on this, then we just aren’t meant to be privy. Maybe it’s a test. Maybe it’s scripted with our knowledge and complicity in advance of our time here. The why doesn’t really matter in any case.

      We are lucky to have love at all. The odds are such that life can be a sterile, lonely existence and too many people live and die without ever having the opportunity to know it. You should consider yourself damn lucky to have been blessed with it even once for however long and live your life after as gratefully as you can as a tribute to it. If this means having the opportunity to love again – seize it – but even if it doesn’t, what good is bitterness and anger and self-pity? It’s like spitting on what you had.

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