What am I supposed to learn?
I haven’t learned it yet
Smoke another cigarette
–Michael Knott, “Jail”
Twelve years ago today, I was living in State College, Pennsylvania. I was ABD (“all but dissertation”) in the Ph.D. program at Penn State University. I was teaching two sections of Introduction to the Philosophy of Science, both of which met on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. It was a Tuesday, though, so I had no particular place to be.
I had been married for a little over two years, and my then-wife, Cheryl, was doing odds and ends while I finished my dissertation. She had always felt a call to work with elderly people– she is currently a social worker in a long-term care facility–and at that time, she volunteered a lot at the local Senior Center. (Its director at the time, Barb Lindenbaum, one of the loveliest, most gentle souls I have ever met, has since passed on from cancer.) That morning, Cheryl was getting ready to volunteer at the Senior Center for a few hours.
For my part, I had no particular place to be, so I was watching the morning shows in my pajamas while she got ready to go out. In those days, I watched a lot of TV news. That morning, I was watching the Today show. Ann Curry, I think, was interviewing an author who had just published a biography of Howard Hughes. Not long after the interview wrapped up, Matt Lauer broke in with live video of a smoking hole in the side of one of the two towers of the World Trade Center. A tragic freak accident, it seemed; they made mention of the plane that hit the Empire State Building during World War II. Clearly, though, the plane that had hit the tower was much bigger. Looking at the hole, which was belching thick black smoke, and doing New Yorker mental math, the Today show hosts speculated on-air that the plane had to be the size of an airliner. It had obviously veered very far off course– flight plans never took an airliner close enough to the WTC for this to be a near-miss situation. The mystery of how the plane had gotten so far off course, coupled with the logistical challenge of fighting a raging fire at the top of one of the tallest buildings in the world, already made it clear that the story would dominate the rest of the morning’s news.
As Cheryl gathered herself to go out to the Senior Center, I directed her attention to the TV and told her what appeared to have happened. She noted it with an appropriate level of alarm, which was not much, and then left. She was never as interested in the news as I was.
I was at home alone in the apartment, then, and settled in for the day. Research and writing would have to wait; this was major news, and I had to watch. I scanned the cable news channels and other morning shows. No one else seemed to have anything more than NBC had. I had made my way back to the Today show, who had a live feed fixed on the WTC, when the second plane hit. As TV news types are trained to do, Matt Lauer and company had been talking incessantly, but when a corner of the second tower erupted in a gigantic fireball, they almost inaudibly gasped in unison and fell silent. That gasp and that stunned silence was unlike anything I recall ever seeing on live television before or since. It couldn’t have lasted more than three or four seconds, but it felt like it lasted longer. I think it should have lasted longer, really.
Once the TV news folks regained their composure, they reached the conclusion quickly that the planes must have hit the towers deliberately. The odds of two random airliners hitting both of those towers within minutes of one another was unthinkable. A scan of the other morning shows and cable news channels indicated that every major news network had reached the same conclusion. I shoved a tape into the VCR, set it to record at the slowest (6-hour) speed, and began to record what was happening. This was clearly historic.
Ultimately I recorded the news, mostly CNN, for 24 hours. I still have the tapes somewhere, but I have only had the stomach to review them once.
Pretty much everyone who was alive and watching the news that morning remembers that from that moment on, there were several hours of steadily elevating panic. Not long after the planes hit the WTC, reports came in of a crashed airliner somewhere in the vicinity of the Pentagon. Reports were vague at the time– I seem to recall that reports were vague as to the number of planes that had crashed, whether one or more planes had hit the building, whether a bomb had exploded in conjunction with all of this. The major news outlets didn’t have cameras trained on the Pentagon the way they had them trained on lower Manhattan. It took a while for anyone to get video or a live feed going from there. Not long after, there were unconfirmed reports– later falsified– of bombs exploding on the National Mall and in front of the State Department. All the while, the towers burned in NYC, and the reports and video from the streets of the city was all panic and shock.
It was somewhere in that bedlam of news that the local NBC affiliate in State College, WJAC-TV, broke in over the Today show (who had hauled in Tom Brokaw out of retirement and every other military and aviation reporter and analyst they had) to report a crashed airplane not far outside Pittsburgh. They were, so far as I know, the first to report that event, which proved to be the downing of United Flight 93 short of its intended target due to the heroic actions of a group of passengers. No one knew that that morning; that story would be told later. All we knew was that another plane had fallen out of the sky, the fourth that morning.
The news had already broken, I think, that the FAA and the federal government had grounded all civilian air traffic and restricted all airspace over the continental United States, an utterly unprecedented move. But that didn’t matter; planes were coming out of the sky in New York City, in Washington, D.C., and near Shanksville, PA. Each location formed the corner of a triangle, and near the center of that triangle was where I sat, watching the news.
I was still alone at home. I could see the TV from my front door. I stood in the door jamb, one ear on the TV, one ear to the sky, waiting for planes to fall. It was utterly quiet. I was scared.
The rest of the horrible aftermath of that day unfolded from that point. No more planes crashed, no bombs exploded, but both World Trade Center towers fell in a scene of sheer horror. Cheryl came home just after the first tower fell, but before the second; she had received word from Barb, who had heard from her husband Sandy that something major had happened. She didn’t know, though, that one of the towers had fallen, and when I told her, she was dumbfounded. The video from the ground was of absolute panic, of a million pieces of paper and slivers of metal and glass and choking dust. The fall of the second tower not long after was, by that point, a grim coda.
The days, weeks, and months that followed were a mixture of shadows and fog, grief and anger, and, more than anything, fear. The fear was pervasive. No one knew exactly what to expect next. There were reports of attacks on Muslims and on anyone who was thought to be Muslim. College campuses around the country received crank bomb threats; the building that housed the English as a Second Language classes at Penn State received at least two that week, presumably because many foreigners could be found there. My Twitter friend Louisa (@LouisatheLast) reminded me today that the Penn State community was apprehensive about that Saturday’s football game, not because Beaver Stadium is a politically meaningful target, but just because a large number of people would be gathered there. Once airspace reopened, airports took on the air of militarized zones, with minimum safe distances for pickup and dropoff and tighter new security rules.
In the news media, a narrative of war and retaliation consolidated quickly, within minutes and hours of the planes hitting. While the towers burned, Tom Brokaw on NBC definitively called the attack an act of war, and others on NBC and elsewhere had begun to connect the attack to Bin Laden. That looming emotion of fear, grief, and wounded pride fused, in the country’s collective dazed state, with the neoconservatives in the Bush Administration and their house organ, Fox News. I don’t have a recording of it, but I clearly remember that Fox News showed, more than once, video that purported to be men, women, and children celebrating the attacks on the streets of Nablus: A clear attempt to distill the prevailing anger and fear and aim it towards the Palestinians and, by extension, the entire Arab world. But Fox News was not the only one to show the video, and they weren’t the only one eager to channel silent, overwhelming emotions into political directions. All around, there was a race to invest the attacks with political meaning.
The next day, September 12, I was scheduled to teach class. The university emphasized to all that class sessions, and class attendance, was completely optional that day. I held class that day, but not to teach philosophy of science. It felt perverse to teach Karl Popper, one of Margaret Thatcher’s major intellectual influences, on that day, with his “third world” of sterile ideal objects insulated from history that, nevertheless, white Europeans seemed to have greater purchase on than anyone else. Instead, I offered it as a forum to let all of us, myself included, try to talk through what the hell just happened. I said a few words to start off with. I said that the world was collectively sailing into rough waters as regards our identities and their social and political meanings, a world in which being a citizen of a (liberal) nation-state was undergoing transformations and showing its limits, a world in which other markers of identity such as religion would prove increasingly intractable to state-driven politics. I predicted that whatever lessons this horrible set of events had to teach us would take us a very, very long time to learn, if we learned them at all. It all sounded so important at the time. I am not sure now.
For the last eight or nine years, I have begun this post in some form or fashion, but I have never finished it and published it. The emotions have been at times still a bit raw for me. I also felt like my relationship to the events of that day was tangential. I didn’t lose any friends or family, and I wasn’t particularly close to Ground Zero or the Pentagon or even to Shanksville. I was like most Americans, who watched it all unfold on television. More than anything, though, I was nagged by the sense that I couldn’t write about that day without feeling like I had sorted through what I thought it all meant. I felt like my post had to do more than stop; it had to conclude.
By this point, twelve years on, in 2013, the events of September 11, 2001 have been endlessly echoed, repeated, re-played, appropriated and reappropriated, analyzed into microscopic bits and reassembled, broken apart and spackled over, and, as time goes on, increasingly compressed to fit into rituals of forced remembrance. 9/11 spawned one war (Afghanistan) and fueled the deception, naked imperial ambition, and collective suspension of disbelief that spawned another (Iraq). It ushered in a revival of fear-based nativist jingoism in politics that is still very much with us in the age of Obama and the “birther” movement. After a longer-than-usual period of reverent silence, Hollywood eventually made its round of movies and television programs about it. 9/11-inspired ideological slogans graced innumerable bumper stickers, yard signs, and T-shirts, the event and its meaning shattered into a million little pieces of paper and slivers of metal.
Yet I still struggle with the notion that perhaps the events of September 11, 2001 still sit there, difficult to recollect and perhaps locked in the past. I once felt like it was important to remember that day and remember it well, beyond the cloud of nostalgia and ideological politics. I even preached a sermon once with that message. It seemed like an important message at the time. I am not sure now.
I am beginning to believe that what 9/11 holds for us is in the small things: The brief , seemingly pointless fragments of memory that take on immense significance. Whenever I think about or tell my story of where I was on 9/11 and what I was doing, for some reason I always, always, come back to standing in my doorway, listening and looking for planes and hearing utter, complete silence. Even today, I think that I am no further along in understanding that day than standing at the doorway and listening to a vast gulf of silence.
I also think of how others, mostly in Pakistan, to this day stand in their doorways and listen and look for planes: unmanned drones, in their case, operated remotely by Americans in the heartland. Silence does not uniformly greet them, though: instead, what they hear is the buzzing sound of aerial killer robots which, on occasion, rain down death. There are children in Pakistan whose entire lives have been lived under the shadow of these drones, drones that our country flies largely out of a desire to prevent another 9/11 from happening– to us. One has to be utterly insensitive to the basic humanity of Pakistanis not to understand that it is monstrous to expect people to live their lives feeling what I felt in that doorway, and worse, on a constant basis. I think we Americans will someday have to reckon not only with the deaths of innocent civilians brought about by our drone program, but also the intangible, but surely immense, psychological damage we have inflicted on an entire generation of Pakistanis and others.
One of the ideological slogans birthed by 9/11 was “never forget.” I am beginning to wonder, though, if forgetting is really a problem we have to guard against here. I certainly don’t know how to forget that day. It seems that we are never allowed to forget it, that its ghosts still haunt us. Maybe we should be allowed to forget it for a little while. Maybe we would then see what kind of life we might be capable of without having to position ourselves constantly with respect to it. It could even be the beginning of some other, better small things.