My 9/11

I feel empty this September 11th, out of the country and away from my home and family in New York City. I passed the morning in silence, alone in my small Parisian apartment watching YouTube.

There, I re-watched the second plane rip through the south tower and its cinematic fireball confront the blue Manhattan sky. I watched the south tower collapse, smoke racing down the streets as horrified news anchors struggled to find the words. I watched the falling men and women who had exercised their last moments of control by deciding to jump to their deaths rather than burn alive. I looked at the Facebook of a friend of mine whose mom had died. What could I write to her?

9/11 shook my life—and perhaps my generation—out of its sheltered reverie. I knew people were capable of evil, but I had never felt its hot blast. I knew I was American, but I had never tried to define for myself what that meant. 9/11 was growing up.

Exactly ten years ago, I was seated on the rug where my fifth grade class had assembled for morning homeroom. It was only the second day of school.

“Class,” Ali said (we called our teachers by their first names), “a plane has hit the World Trade Center. Do any of you have parents who work there?” The classroom was silent.

“Like a little plane?” I asked after a moment.

“Like a big plane.”

While my classmates and teachers chattered nervously, I quietly went to the shared computer and opened the web browser. “Towers Collapse; Thousands Feared Dead,” read the headline on CNN. Thousands? I retreated to the rug, my fear mixed with sick fascination and a nagging thought that I still wasn’t getting the gravity of what happened.

By lunchtime, my mom picked me up. She worked in Times Square and had walked three and a half miles north on Madison Avenue, part of a massive exodus from downtown that included many whose faces were blackened with soot and streaked with blood. As soon as we got home, I turned on the TV, watching the videos of impact and collapse over and over until I was numb. By immersing myself so deeply in the news that day, I was shielding myself from emotions I would have to confront in the weeks, months and years to come.

9/11 indelibly changed the way our generation saw itself and the world. Suddenly, there was evil afoot, manifested in a shadowy, previously little-known organization that had instantly become an existential threat to America. And suddenly, as parents, teachers and presidents constantly reminded us, we were Americans, bound by our freedom.

But we were not free from fear. For the first time in my life, I sensed fear all around me. In the week after the attacks, I saw it in the eyes of the family members posted on street corners handing out missing person signs, mothers and fathers and children afraid to let go of hope, afraid of what would happen if they did. I saw it in the way people looked at my Pakistani friend on the subway; as if any second he might scream “Allahu Akbar!” and blow himself up. And though they were justified as acts of strength and protection, I saw fear in America’s foreign policy choices over the next decade.

Ten years later, 9/11’s ghosts still haunt the daily news. Bin Laden is finally dead, but America finds its status, reputation and morale greatly diminished. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, though they are frequently (and shamefully) far from our minds, have cost more than 7,000 lives and contributed almost $1.7 trillion to a sagging deficit that weighs our country down. On 9/12, it was clear that the post-Cold War period in which America existed as a sole, thriving superpower without enemies, as a model which the rest of the world could only hope to emulate, was painfully over. Today, it’s clear that 9/11 permanently rocked the American psyche. Today, accustomed to living with unsustainable levels of debt and a broken political system, our nation remembers the day that forced us to learn to live with insecurity.

Immediately after the attacks, as I became more fully aware of my national identity, more engaged in politics, and more determined to understand what could have prompted such hate, I sensed that the America to which I belonged had changed forever. But on its ten-year anniversary I am not thinking so much of the myriad ways in which 9/11 affected the course of our country—I am thinking about how I grew up with 9/11. From two gleaming towers to a smoldering ground zero, from charred rubble to a pristine memorial, 9/11’s memory will fade but never die, just like my childhood.


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