|The World Trade Center, September 11, 2001.|
Shell-shocked is the best way to describe how I felt by the end of the day on Tuesday, September 11, 2001. The day started out ordinarily enough. I was a junior at the Kansas City Art Institute, and, as an upperclassman, I finally had tons of creative freedom and the opportunity to get into the classes I was really excited to take. Like every non-studio day that semester, I had gotten up early to attend my Performance Art elective. It wasn’t always easy to wake up after late nights in studio, but I really loved everything I was learning. Our class was tiny, with no more than five or seven students. We were all sitting in a circle on the floor of Epperson Auditorium, the school’s main lecture hall, discussing the day’s chosen topic. A student who was not in our class came in the side door and told us the US had come under attack by terrorists. He also said the Media Center was playing the footage on TV.
Our teacher was permissive, so we all headed from our building across the sidewalk to the building next door, where the Media Center was located. We all felt a sense of excitement, as if we were going on a field trip. It was fun to have our normal schedule shaken up. None of us had any reason to suspect or expect the worst. As we entered the building, one of the long-time Art History professors came running down the stairs looking bewildered and more disheveled than usual. As he passed by, he said, “This is what the US gets for its defiance.” (You have to remember, the 9/11 attack took place less than a year after the United States had pulled out of the Kyoto Protocol. It was not a leap to think American attitudes on international issues and the environment might have had something to do with the attack.) That was the first signal that something was clearly very wrong. Whatever had happened was severe enough to scare the heck out of an old hippie who seemed to have witnessed it all.
When we got upstairs, the room was full of people. I sat on an empty stool in the back row. A TV on a cart had been pulled front and center. I saw the New York skyline covered with billowing smoke. I turned to the guy sitting beside me and asked, “What’s going on?” He said one of the towers of the World Trade Center had fallen down. I said, “What do you mean, it fell down?” Then, as I watched, I saw the second tower follow the first to the ground floor by floor by floor. I still don’t think I understood what was happening. I don’t think any of us did.
I don’t remember if I went to any other classes that day or if they were canceled. All I remember is sitting on my best friend’s couch, where we watched hours and hours of news footage. I don’t think we could watch the Twin Towers fall enough times. We listened to eyewitness accounts and stories of survival. We watched firefighters, police officers and EMTs canvass the area. We flipped the channels for new footage and information. We never tired of hearing the same details repeated, clarified, and then reworded again. I don’t think I even blinked that day - except when I was crying. We just couldn’t understand how or why the Twin Towers and all those lives were simply gone.
Either a day or a week later, the campus gathered together for a candlelight ceremony. Afterward, we painted banners to send to New York. As I recall, none of the work was particularly good. I don’t know if the paintings ever actually made it to New York. I don’t know if it even matters. The action of painting felt good; it was a cathartic group event. We were stuck in the Midwest and unable to see or help anyone in New York. There was such a strong desire and a need to DO SOMETHING. Like a lot of people, I think what I was feeling for the first time was a joint patriotic goal in the PRESENT to work toward. This was nothing read in a history book. I was INVOLVED. I wanted New York to heal, but I had no idea how to make that happen.
I didn’t know where the actions of that early morning would lead, but I knew whatever happened, it would be bloody and more innocent lives would certainly be lost. Already, I heard people calling for payback and Saddam Hussein’s head. I am not sure if I learned the word Taliban that day or not, but it and the name Osama bin Laden entered my vocabulary soon enough. Overall, I felt fearful and worried for the lives of Americans and non-Americans alike.
Fear became a steady state of being in the United States. For the first time in my life, I felt like the United States was vulnerable to outside forces. It seemed like the main political goal was for America to secure itself from THE OTHER, no matter what the cost. I remember hearing the words “Terror Alert” so often, they became meaningless. It was just the status quo. I think about the kids I work with in my new job in higher education. The majority of them are no older than 22. Most of them developed their political consciousness in a United States changed by 9/11, its aftershocks and the rhetoric that has developed as a result.
My sister, an 8th grade English and Social Studies teacher, has students who have NO memories whatsoever of a pre-9/11 world. What do we tell them? How do we explain this event to people who haven’t yet been born? All I know is the last ten years have passed quickly, and they have wrought many changes, some I agree with and some I don’t. At the same time, daily life remains, in many ways, unchanged. I wish I knew where we would be on the 20th anniversary of 9/11, but I can’t predict it. I hope we are recovered and more hopeful as a nation. I hope the people who lost loved ones or experienced horrors that day find peace. I hope all the societies we have affected since then will be on their way to recovery, too. I hope I can have something personal and true to tell my (future) children about that day and about these past ten (and forthcoming) years.
What were your experiences of the original 9/11? How have they influenced you and how you think today?