It’s been twenty years since I stepped out of the subway on 6th Avenue and heard an unusually close groaning in the sky and then a boom of glass thunder.
I still question myself, did I hear this? How do I remember this sound so clearly?
Coming around the corner and looking down the island of Manhattan from 23rd street I saw something I couldn’t comprehend, which is now one of the most familiar images in U.S. history: a building on fire. Not just any building, but a tower of the World Trade Center, where my crew went often because our friend sneaked us free sushi at her waitress job in the basement mall. There were flames pouring out the side of one of the skyscrapers.
Then a plane flew into the second tower. I knew in a way I had never known before that I was in the presence of mass death; in that fire were people who had gone to work and were now dead and dying. All around me on the avenue people were standing and staring, slack jawed or screaming, running, trying to call people.
I ran into my office building and tried to call my father, who worked at the Pentagon. I couldn’t reach him, though someone did pick up the phone and say in a harried voice that they didn’t know where he was. A few minutes later the news came over the radio that the Pentagon had been hit. I spent the rest of the day praying, trying not to even consider that my dad was dead. In the end, we were one of the lucky families. He was not in his office, which was destroyed. Before I slept I heard his voice with a flood of gratitude. I remembered this flood often over the next few years, which would test our relationship.
I still wonder about the man with the harried voice – who was he? Did he make it?
At the towers, people were running down stairwells, stuck in elevators, though I didn’t hear all of that until later. On the floors that were on fire, and above the fire, people were gathering on ledges, jumping, falling. I can’t remember how I saw this, but I remember it, people having to make impossible decisions, alone and together. I’ve never stopped thinking about this.
And then the towers fell. I began writing this today in that window between first impact and collapse, though perhaps like the event itself, it will take longer than that for the dust to settle.
I remember my baby radical brain thinking our empire was falling, and perhaps everything I called my life was over, and that made sense to me, felt expected in a way.
I remember talking to a friend in South Africa at the World Conference on Racism, who reached me by phone when almost no calls were connecting, who asked me if people were going wild in the streets.
I remember connecting with a friend a few blocks away who seemed far less shaken by it all, which lodged in my brain as something to pay attention to, as another option that I couldn’t quite imagine with my father missing and the world falling down.
I remember how quiet it was as we joined the slow moving crowd and walked all the way down the island, across the bridge, to a friend’s house in Park Slope. I remember not wanting to be alone in my apartment in Washington Heights.
I remember that everything was covered in ashes, including people walking in the opposite direction, some visibly injured; including my hands every time I touched anything; including the backyard Brooklyn picnic table where I, a vegetarian, ate kielbasa that night. Ashes.
We breathed these buildings in, breathed these people in, and they became part of us.
I remember everything.
This is unusual for me, my memory tends to tuck the most traumatic events of my life away in a soft dense fog that I need support to move through. But in the same way childhood photos can shape our memories with sepia tones of repeated exposure, this traumatic event was replayed over and over. This event was witnessed in person or on television by everyone else I knew, everyone had and has a story. People I knew lost loved ones. My memories are individual and collective.
And, of course, 9/11 was used as the reason we went to war with Iraq and Afghanistan.
I understand in retrospect so much more than I did then about how the U.S. uses conflict to avoid grieving, avoid growing.
At the time, I was naively wondering to everyone I spoke to: how could we, having lived through that horror, inflict it on others? Knowing how random the deaths were, how precious those lives were, how could we put others through that? Through so much worse than that – in our retaliation for the strikes on these two structures, the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, we obliterated nations. We became obsessed with security, we reignited rampant and overt xenophobia and racism, we used overpowering violence in the name of American safety.
We went to war.
As a military child, this was the first time war felt visceral to me. I knew by then that there’s no such thing as a fair war with a superpower. There’s terror, chaos and narratives of justification. There’s bloodlust, and the desire for total dominance and control. And there’s an attempt to erase any memories beyond the ones that make us warriors.
But I remember.
I remember all the complex emotions of being a budding nonviolent revolutionary living through September 11, wanting us to be accountable, to listen to what the conditions we were creating in the world had produced. I remember wondering who could believe in such one-dimensional villainy.
I remember the American flags everywhere.
I remember the eyes on me, trying to place me.
I remember the armed soldiers in the subway.
I remember the smell of downtown, it haunted the subways. I remember the open grief that seemed so brief before the warmongering began. I remember acts of heroism and humanity. I remember the flyers with faces and heartbreakingly intimate descriptions of loved ones everywhere; going to Union Square which was part-bulletin board, part-memorial, and feeling an empathy beyond politic for these strangers.
I remember knowing that I was politically at odds with a lot of these dead strangers, that they were capitalists and soldiers. There were also those I saw as my people, as an antiwar, anticapitalist organizer, the workers. But in the wake of 9/11, my empathy expanded, and I could grasp that every single one of these people were parents, spouses, friends, beloveds and children of those who now grieved.
Our nation began gearing up for war instead of turning to face the grief and take accountability for the impacts of our foreign policy legacy. My young empathy easily expanded into action as I first protested the pending wars, then watched the bombs hit Baghdad and Afghanistan. The day that we launched the shock and awe invasion of Iraq, I started sending emails with news from the war to everyone I had an address for, pre-blog. Perhaps I am still writing those emails now – I knew then that those who were dying far away were also parents, spouses, friends, beloveds and children of those who would grieve them. I remember thinking about 23-year-olds there, going about their days under the threat of our vengeance. I remember knowing they had less to do with 9/11 than I did as an American taxpayer and voter.
As I remember all of this, I have to acknowledge to myself that 9/11 and its aftermath transformed my sense of nation. I stopped paying taxes as a stance against those wars, the largest and most sustained direct action of my life. I became a post-nationalist in those years – I wanted a way to be a connected human, and it occurred to me that the project of building a specific nation-state with borders defended by walls and weapons and greed that poisons integrity is the antithesis of being connected as a species. I wanted to live in the connected field of all that empathy sparked in the seconds, days and weeks after September 11.
Because I remember the empathy as clearly as the fear. I remember how I felt the humanity in all of us, the enhanced brightness, the awareness of all our choices. The empathy ran concurrent with that concoction of disappointment and rage that humans produce in me when we, over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over again forever, choose violence. I remember longing to know what love could do uncoupled from vengeance and violence.
I still want that. I’ve seen a lot of numbers this week, placing September 11 deaths next to those of the global coronavirus pandemic. Seeing these numbers juxtaposed, I can’t help but wonder how we would respond to COVID-19 if, each day, it was a building of mostly strangers, altogether, taken at once, with an enemy we could other and blame. Instead we have this dispersed, intimate loss of loved ones we often can’t hold or see, with no one to turn to in anger but ourselves, our families, our neighbors, our elected officials.
Every day now, we lose thousands of people, more and more of them children. Each day in the U.S. alone, COVID-19 deaths are comparable to the numbers of 9/11. In a year and a half, we’ve had a total U.S. loss of life comparable to the total global lives lost in our twenty year 9/11 retaliation.
But this is not a surprise attack. We have known for over a year now exactly what is happening, and exactly how to save most of those lives. Our capitalist commitment to profit won’t let us hold the lines that would stop the spread of this virus, truly quarantine until it is contained, and shift the economy to support the people until that time. We have the resources, but not the will. It is thus left to individuals to make impossible decisions, alone and together, in crisis. The protests feel ridiculous – asking other adults to cover their mouths? Step back? We fight each other, and we die, polite and/or with violence, struggling with boundaries, logic and collective action right up until the end.
Ah, I didn’t expect to need to write this much today. This all feels connected to me, but perhaps the fog and dust and ash is too much for me to say it clearly, even feel it clearly…forgive me if I am wandering about, or doing too much.
I am sifting through the memories with this current lens of daily death, on the planet/species side of a vast chasm between belief systems around our human purpose on earth. There has been and is a war within our nation, just look at the casualties. It is a war of values and standards, and a war between individualism and collectivism. These days it feels like a war between informed boundaries and risks, and the myth of consequence-free, independent choices.
Stepping back to look at the patterns, the battleground is everywhere. It’s the plague, the profiteers, the police, the non-consensual pregnancies, the apocalyptic climate conditions – we are in the age of consequences for inhumane choices. We are still and always battling the culture of death. This iteration of war will determine how many days are left to millions of people, how many years humans will have on earth.
We breathe each other in, still.
For some of us, September 11 awakened an expansive and humble empathy that could have transformed our nation. The aftermath, however, fully unveiled the culture of supremacy and death that is as U.S.-American as any aspirational culture of democracy or liberation.
In the tenderness of my memories, I long for a collective shift into reality. We are just humans who need to find a way to empathize, feel compassion, grieve, generate love, and tether ourselves back to this abundant planet.
But can I still access that empathy beyond politic, that compassion beyond border, today? I can feel how my empathy is exhausted, bruised, stretched. But I remember when it felt like a limitless energy. And maybe that memory is what will help me, help us, survive this period of pandemic – not nationally, and not just physically, but collectively, and spiritually.