On the Monday after the first weekend of the academic year in 2001, about fifty honors program students and I turned in a Global History 9H assignment: a timeline of each of our lives up until that point. By chance, I found this timeline a few months ago, and performed the chronological calculus of determining its date of manufacture: September 10, 2001. Until that date the four most important events of 2001 for me were, in chronological order, the birth of my cousin Rebecca; the death of the dog I had received as a puppy months after my grandfather, with whom I was very close, died during the winter when I was in kindergarten; the removal of a foot of my hair for Locks of Love donation and personal appearance purposes; and the commencement of high school. Beside a mark on the timeline to designate the new millennium, every event on the timeline is strictly personal in nature. I have memories of acknowledging elections, political scandals, the Oklahoma City bombing and the OJ Simpson trial, the last two of those events having a “Buffalo connection” and having been covered relentlessly by the local media in Western New York, where I grew up and now live again. None of those events had enough relevance to me to qualify for enumeration on the assigned timeline.
On the afternoon of Monday, September 10, 2001, my best friend and I skipped cross-country practice in order to goof around, go jogging and generally antagonize the well-intentioned middle-aged male coach who was ill-equipped to manage a roster of ten young women. My friend and I joked about the earth-shattering consequences of our transgression, indulging in worst case scenarios that would somehow result from our decision to disobey the order of the universe and the varsity cross-country team practice schedule: The school would implode! The city would burn! That evening, like all other Monday evenings in high school, I probably went to magnet math classes at a nearby university.
On the morning of Tuesday, September 11, 2001, I was in Art 1: Drawing and Painting, second period, when news of something outside the high school trickled into the Art Department office adjacent to my classroom. An accident, or something, a plane crash in Manhattan, a place I had never been, was cause for alarm, surprise. One art teacher, an elegant Jewish woman from Brooklyn, who still strikes me as being among the most graceful, regal people I have known, expressed apprehension and then relief about the safety of her relatives and friends in New York. Another student in that art class would later become a good friend of mine, and I believe her dad was at the World Trade Center during a business trip that morning. In that time before ubiquitous cell phones, I am not sure the confused news of the accident, no, coordinated attack, in Manhattan, and the fact that that her father had been so close to the catastrophe was relayed before his safety was already ascertained.
I never asked my teacher or my friend for details about that morning. As births and deaths dotted my personal timeline, the families of those murdered in the September 11 terror attacks must mark that date as one of personal relevance. For that enormous group of people, I felt the sadness of being just a person or two removed from anxiety, from somber funerals and from the grief that accompanies a sudden, unexpected death. A decade later, I still have not felt the acute loss of a friend or family member to an accident, attack or incident completely unforeseen. Bearing witness to the friends of friends who have, I hope that I never experience that loss.
It was not until roughly noon that the significance of the terror attacks had been determined and televisions were brought into classrooms so that we students would see the day’s events unfold. It was in that same social studies class where I had turned in the personal timeline 24 hours earlier that my classmates and I were told an event of great historical significance was unfolding. In less than four hours, contemporary panic had become history, and as an historic national event, not as a personal event, I would come to know September 11. I had no insight, no meaningful consolation for the people I didn’t know five hundred miles away who were directly impacted by that day’s losses.
In the weeks that would follow, I experienced vague irritation for country musicians whose patriotic songs seemed like eulogies delivered by funeral-crashers, general distaste for garish cable news reports, sad concern for world events still to come. Years later, I would be inconvenienced by flight safety regulations and agitated, discomforted by nearly every mention of 9/11 by a politician or warmonger.
A decade removed from September 11, 2001, I feel sadness and guilt whenever I see a man or woman in full military uniform, especially onboard flights or in the security-cleared zones surrounding airline gates: where are they coming from and where will they go as they participate in the consequences of the world conflict that came to a head ten years ago, mixing history and countless personal timelines? Encounters with these Americans remind me how deep the experience divide is between Americans fortunate enough not to be directly impacted by Qaeda terrorism and those who must bear great loss, suffering and horror in its wake.
Profound sadness and hopelessness engulfs me when I see military personnel, the same profound sadness and hopelessness that I first felt ten years ago: were it that this world was not so cruel, that demagogues and hate-motivated campaigns would not bring so much senseless loss. I am fortunate that the grief of so many individuals over so many years stops a person removed from me; I am unspeakably fortunate.