My Strange Recollections of 9/11
Having grown up in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States, and having witnessed the tumult that was and still is the War on Terror, I am a part of a generation of young adults who are thought to have vivid, hyper-specific memories of the event that ultimately shaped our collective lives and psyche. It’s almost expected that those of us who were entering middle school the year that four hijacked planes claimed the lives of nearly 3,000 people, and Osama bin Laden became the new face of pure evil in the USA, would be able to recall exactly what we were doing, where we were, and how we felt the minute we received the news.
Oddly enough, I have no memories of 9/11 – well… no clear memories, anyway.
For me, 9/11 remains the worst-remembered cultural event that undeniably shaped my life throughout my teenage years. Do I know what grade I was in the day I first learned about terrorism? Sure, I was just starting sixth grade – eleven years old – at a middle school in Gowanda, NY. But do I know which faculty member it was who told me and my classmates the shocking news that supposedly signaled The Death of Irony? Could I tell you whether or not classes were canceled for the rest of the day or whether the school board just called off recess? Was my mother in frantic tears when she picked me up early from school? Was this the catalyst for a crippling fear of flying in airplanes? Was I scared, confused, angry, upset, willing to join the Marines? Was I instilled with a palpitating sense of patriotism and an allegiance to George W. Bush, the “Leader of the Free World”? Did 9/11 signal a distrust of conservative government authority and modern warfare tactics that would culminate in me attending the politically progressive campus of Ithaca College and working for an underground magazine? (Maybe.)
Although I concede that I was fairly intelligent for an 11-year-old, to this day I’m surprised that there’s so much grey clouding my memory where, for others, there are rich hues of color – specifically, red, white, and blue. Reading through the Sept. 8, 2011 issue of The Ithacan, I’m surprised that for the students interviewed, their cognitive powers of memory retention are far more acute than mine. On the tenth anniversary of 9/11, Facebook was overflowing with detailed accounts from my friends and family on how 9/11 changed their life, why God should hold our country in such high esteem, and why the War on Terror still matters. By contrast, anything I’ve learned about 9/11 was much later, through the print and web media and all that has been written ad nauseum regarding the United States’ defining moment of the 21st century. I can only reflect on the facts presented, not on any personal truth regarding the event itself.
What I do remember is September 11, 2002: The moment I realized that everything was changing.
Twelve years old, I’m slumped in an old recliner that smells like cat urine in my living room, watching TV. My household had been recently blessed with cable television, most specifically MTV, that beacon of youth culture with which my two sisters were absolutely infatuated. Since it was the one-year anniversary of an event still very fresh in the minds of everyone in the United States, especially in my hometown, Total Request Live dedicated that day’s episode as a somber remembrance of what transpired exactly 365 days prior. What stood out most clearly, and what resonated with me even at 12 years old, was the account of a Muslim man and the impact of 9/11 on his life. Dressed in a turban and a full beard, this man recalled the almost immediate racial and religious hatred he encountered from white, seemingly Christian males, who seemed to place blame upon him specifically for what had happened to nearly 3,000 people. If anything, this brief interview on a TV signaled for me my understanding of prejudice and xenophobia that went neatly hand-in-hand with the resurgence of red-blooded patriotism.
Indeed, this notion held among my preteen classmates that a) the United States was great and b) Muslims (“Ay-rabs”) were the bad guys, could be summarized by the ubiquity of the American flag as it decorated all houses, public buildings, and even adorned the Main Street Bridge that connected Erie and Cattaraugus counties. What had been so commonplace before suddenly had a real meaning for me, and the Pledge of Allegiance suddenly held weight where before it had not. Likewise, the U.S. military suddenly (or perhaps more strongly) held the interest of many of my male friends and classmates. It wasn’t uncommon to hear delighted military buffs wax pseudo-poetic their desire to grab an M-4 Carbine, enter a Mosque, and kill every brown-skinned terrorist he could find. The fact that al-Qaeda represented an extremist branch of Islam was of no concern to would-be war heroes, nor that a religion that comprised 1.5 billion people weren’t in tune with bin Laden’s fanatical views. Chris Zivalich’s excellent Sept. 15 Ithacan editorial regarding the discrimination of Muslim families from collective eulogizing reinforces everything I can to realize living in a cloistered small town of mostly white families (save the Seneca Indians, who weren’t immune to irrational racism either).
My understanding of 9/11, terrorism, the military-industrial complex, and the sheer complexities of war, government, and race/religion relations only came after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were already one year old. Although as a nation we have strove for peace, my recollections of growing animosity undermine the admirable quest for common understanding.