I witnessed 9/11 up close, too close. I ran when the first tower collapsed. I saw people jumping off the towers, and only in retrospect did I realised what I had seen. I washed grey ash off my hands and face that night.
In no way can I be counted as a victim of 9/11, however. I didn’t lose anybody close. My life was never in danger, though I wasn’t so sure of that at the time. I was one of the extras in a movie, playing my bit part in the drama by running and screaming.
As we approach the fifteenth anniversary, there is something that disquiets me about the way we have memorialised the attacks. In the States and in what can be called the western world we have ascribed so many layers of meaning and causes, and tacked on so much of the post-9/11 aftermath — the wars, the surveillance, water boarding, airport security, machine guns in Grand Central Station — that the event itself fades. It’s obscured and lost in rhetoric and ideology.
We have inverted Wallace Stevens admonition to focus not on ideas about the thing, but the thing itself. Up close it looked different. It was incoherent, chaotic, and destabilising.
My memories of 9/11 are anything but hazy. In fact, the experience was so vivid that it took almost three years for it not to feel like the attacks had happened about a week ago.
It also seems like a time out of time, a surreal break from reality. I fell asleep on my couch in my apartment in Brooklyn that night, after seeing repeated on TV what I had seen with my own eyes. Still, I thought it was probably all a dream, a nightmare. I believed this despite having to shut the windows because the smoke from the remains was making its way across the river.
I ran from the first tower, after seeing it collapse. “What a stupid way to die,” I thought, but the building collapsed in on itself (as buildings are designed to do) and not forward as I first imaged.
I didn’t see the planes go into the buildings. I was on the subway making my way into lower Manhattan, to an advertising agency where I had taken a job proofreading ad copy. I was fresh out of graduate school.
When we reached Chambers Street, we were we were instructed to evacuate. I walked up to the stairs to see the towers on fire and then walked with the crowd towards the buildings. Suddenly an expulsion, or an implosion — it’s hard to tell the difference on the ground. This is followed by the collapse, the dust, and the screams. Smoke and dust and an unidentifiable smell everywhere. School kids were hanging out the window of their school, shouting. Fighter planes fly over the Williamsburg Bridge, while people streamed across it, making their way to the relative safety of Brooklyn. The emergency vehicles were rushing down Manhattan’s empty streets with sirens blaring.
I have encountered people who wish to explain to me how U.S. foreign policy or how Muslim extremism was responsible. There is no lack of opinions in the age of the internet or dearth of conspiracy theories. But isn’t this a way to remove oneself from the event itself, a way of making it an abstraction? Just what is it that we are never to forget? How can we all be commemorating the same thing when we remember it so differently?
In the end, it is our own — ours as in us human beings — shared depravity and indifference that was demonstrated on 9/11, as it is in every war. Our capacity to inflict pain on each other and justify it is evident in the news every day and the victims are innocent bystanders. The refugees from these wars, the euphemistically called migrants, are nuisances, problems to be solved.
What I understand from my brush with terrorism is my capacity not to understand. Suffering on a large scale is hard to comprehend, and I don’t blame younger people for whom the collapse of the World Trade Center is about as unreal and far away as the destruction of the Death Star.
If you look closely, if you see the individual suffering, it is harder to ignore, which may be why we are more interested in honouring our dead in grand sweeping gestures than reaching out to living victims. Just as it is much easier to fit events into our particular ideology, instead of letting the senselessness of it all speak for itself.
That is not to say we should not honour the people we lost, or that the fear, sadness, and even anger felt should be discounted. It is to say that the experience of the depth of our grief, can deepen our understanding of others’ grief; can expand rather than contract our world. And this must happen if the cycle of violence is ever to stop.