For a week or two now, it’s been inescapable: “Where were you when?”
My own September 11th story is unremarkable. At the time, I was in my first semester of college at the University of Virginia. I was in my dorm room, getting ready for class when my roommate’s best friend called. Her voice was so emotional I could barely understand what she was saying. Plane? Towers? Even after I turned on the TV, it didn’t make sense. All I really remember about the rest of the day is pressing redial on my phone again and again, trying to reach my brother, who lived in Manhattan at the time, or my mother, who was visiting him that week. My roommate’s parents worked in the Pentagon, and she couldn’t reach them either. I remember walking around Alderman Road and seeing everyone doing the same thing: dialing their cellphones again and again.
My mom and brother were fine — and so were my roommate’s parents. Everyone was a bit shaken but slowly, in media coverage and in our conversations with one another, a narrative began to emerge. The next day I attended a teach-in featuring Politics professors like R. K. Ramazani, Peter Ochs, and Michael J. Smith (who would later become my thesis adviser). The next week, I talked to minority groups on campus. A few months later, I visited my brother in New York. He told me about how his law school roommate, a volunteer firefighter (who would later be the best man at his wedding), had gone down to the World Trade Center site on 9/11. We went to an exhibit of September 11th photos taken by ordinary New Yorkers and hung by clothespins on the small walls of a downtown gallery. As we walked through the city, my brother pointed out which streets had been filled with dust. I spent too long staring at a makeshift memorial in Grand Central. It still didn’t make sense.
It surprises me how much September 11th has entered my career. I’ve spoken with the city medical examiner about identifying victim’s remains from the WTC rubble; I’ve spoken with first responders and post-traumatic stress counselors about 9/11 survivors, interviewed the founder of Stop the Islamization of America and spoken with members of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. I’ve worked on coverage of the controversial Muslim community center project in lower Manhattan and of Osama bin Laden’s death. In recent weeks, I resisted the coming tenth anniversary because it felt like over the years, we (and especially those of us who work in the media) haven’t ever paused from remembering that day. Mark Lilla summed it up sharply in New York magazine: “Remembrance became a narcotic that turned a prosperous nation at peace into a debt-ridden wayward giant lumbering around the world, willfully ignorant of its folly, its speech slurred and incomprehensible to anyone but itself.”
Still, seeing the lights this weekend — the two beams where the towers were, reaching into the sky; and the red, white and blue tiers of the Empire State Building — I was moved by the city’s stubborn memory, and the brighter part of “never forget” that represents an affirmation. As Mayor Bloomberg put it:
We had to show the world that – in everyday lives – terror could not diminish our tolerance. Hate could not defeat our hope. And fanaticism could not destroy our freedom. Each of us did that in a million little ways – in the flags we waved and the blood we gave and the donations we made. We did it in time by volunteering – as rescue and recovery workers, social workers and medical professionals, as caterers and caregivers. We did it in the way we treated each other – with a new-found sense of solidarity. People of every color, of every country, speaking every language, practicing every religion, holding every belief, and yet we were all New Yorkers first – proud of our city, and determined to bring it back.
I wasn’t a New Yorker on September 11th, but now that I live in this city too, I’ve seen those little acts of goodwill and humanity — ordinary acts of kindness and courage — day in and day out. They give me hope.
Mythlil.. What a wonderful uplifting article about your rememberance of 9/11.. My husband and I went to a Fife and drum of Colonial Williamsburg 9/11 Memorail march down “dog” st. “Patrick Henry” spoke.. it was so amazing… Hope all is well in the big So Proud to be an American City! As “Patrick Henry” said.. “I am an American” first.. then I can tell you proudly of my family heritage! Take care!
Thanks for reading and leaving a note! I’m glad your 9/11 observance was meaningful. Good ol’ Colonial Williamsburg!
I was in your room that morning when I found out what had happened–you turned on the radio so we could hear more. We were both trying to figure out exactly where our brothers worked in the city to see if they would have been nearby. I had a laminated NYC map I got from my room to find where the towers were in relation to midtown where my bro worked at the time. My roommate was also freaking out because her dad had been on his way to the Pentagon that day. Very interesting to hear your reflection on that day.
I’d forgotten about your laminated map! Funny how even after a decade of talking about that day the details are foggy in my memory (did we have a TV in the suite to turn on, or was it just the radio?). How lucky we were to have all our New York family members safe. And to wind up in the city all these years later.