Sunday, September 11, 2011

September 11th, 2011

I just stumbled across this on Twitter. The New York Times asked its readers how they were commemorating the tenth anniversary of the September 11th attacks. There's a diversity of answers on the subject--people are mowing lawns, sitting in complete silence, making chocolate truffles. The difference between America in 2011, and, say, the Soviet Union or North Korea is that people can commemorate events like these however they choose to. We have the right to be just as aimless and generally unreflective and bored and anomic today as we are every other day of the year--there's no parade we're all forced to go to and no speech we're all forced to watch. So free is this country of ours that we can reformulate our daily ennui--basically the shit we'd be doing regardless of what happened ten years or ten minutes ago--as, in fact, an attempt at reflecting on the events of ten years ago--which of course seems like complete intellectual and moral evasion, revealing a kind of discomfort with feeling or thinking anything about the implications of our being an entire decade removed from the event itself, because really, seriously this:

I'm making chocolate truffles, as a sort of life-affirming rebuke to the attacks. I'll be enjoying them this evening when I light a commemorative candle.

Dear fucking God. It kind of reminds me of that moment late in Faulkner's As I Lay Dying, when you find out that Darl is actually a deeply traumatized World War I veteran, and that the sort of callousness and pathos and, inevitably, violence that characterizes his relationship with his mother might really be an attempt at suppressing or coming to grips with something even darker, experiences that he (we? The human race?) never consciously faces or even acknowledges--and that he only subconsciously acknowledges in the mania of trying to incinerate his deceased mother's corpse. Anyway, my fear is that we're all Darls, at this point. Today recalls a darkness so dark that we (and by we I mean me, and chocolate truffle woman, and probably most people in America I'm thinking) can only face it by proxy--through other darknesses, through darknesses more comprehensible to us.

Because even after 10 years 9/11 is incomprehensible to me. The events of Septebmer 11th, 2001 follow a kind of nightmare logic; the Onion's famous proclamation that Americans were "living in a bad Jerry Bruchiemer film (note: I don't care enough to look up how this dude's name is actually spelled)" sort of evokes the like, rupture in the very fabric of reality that occurred on 9/11. Except maybe it doesn't actually, because 9/11 was reality, and the temptation to think of it as something other than that--as part of some great, patriotic narrative, as an event that happened in history or to history, rather than an event that happened here, to us--reveals the impossibility or at least the extraordinary difficulty of facing the thing head-on.

What would it take to put yourself back in the exact mindset of Sept 11th, 2001? Can anything do that? Can memory? Do we really remember how it felt to see the middle of our greatest city turned into a charnal house? Do we remember the surreal horror of watching fellow human beings--and they seemed, in a painfully immediate way, like our actual, fellow human beings; like real, actual people--flinging themselves from the 70th floor of a burning building? Do we remember the confusion, the numbness deeper than anger, even? Can we inhabit it again? Can we remember what it is like to understand, for the first time, that the world we thought we were living in wasn't the world we were actually living in? Do we remember what it was like to not understand it--to feel it in our guts, or to not feel it, or to live in denial of the fact that the world we thought we were living in wasn't the world we were actually living in (by the way, after Iraq and Afghanistan and the Great Recession and the other gothic horrors of the past decade, I think that sense of psychic dissonance is far weaker now than it was back then)?

But I'm not sure. I mean I was like, 13 at the time anyway. My memories of the day are vivid, but distant. I remember the weather. I remember a teacher--I can't remember who, exactly--coming into Ms. Carpen's science class (I think we were studying rocks, or basic chemistry or some shit) and explaining that a plane had just hit the World Trade Center. Weirdly enough, it was as if class was already over--my eighth grade magnet class was scheduled to go on a five-day field trip to New York in late October, so anything New York-related was of immediate interest. I don't know why, but Ms. Carpen turned on the TV.

It was on for about ten minutes. Only one tower was on fire. People were still joking around, socializing; the images on the TV didn't seem real to us because, let's face it, most shit on TV isn't real to us, even now. And we were still children back then. In the mind of a child in America in 2001, the collapse of an 1100-foot building for any reason whatsoever was impossible--hell, in the mind of most adults in America in 2001, the collapse of an 1100-foot building for any reason whatsoever probably seemed impossible. If I had to pinpoint the deepest psychic scar that that day inflicted upon me and maybe even upon America in general, it was the realization the same outlandish horrors whose physical or historical distance allow us to avoid the fact that they were actually visited upon real people who feel and think and suffer just like we do--genocide, terrorist attacks; war and action movie fodder, basically--are real. When I visited Babiyar, I sat cross-legged and tried to imagine the children who had been massacred in the very spot I was sitting in. But Babiyar was only a place for me, not an event, I didn't see any evidence of it, just a ravine and a crumbling memorial shaped like a Menorah and even people walking their dogs. I was blindsided by the reality that the temporal and physical gulf between myself and the darkest moments in Jewish history were unbridgable for me. I left with a deep sense of guilt. And though I didn't think this at the time (at least not consciously), watching the tower burn, live, on television, was maybe the first and only sign I've ever received in my entire life that the world actually is that horrible.

Anyway, the tower looked like it was tilting a bit to one side, but it only might have appeared that way because of the camera angle or the curvature of the TV screen or something. "If the tower collapses, it will be the most spectacular moment in television history," I remarked to a friend. It just didn't seem possible that that could happen, which is why I could talk about it so flippantly, and why people were still joking and carrying on despite the in-retrospect obvious fact that we were watching hundreds of people burn to death on live television. This came from nervousness, rather than actual levity. What we were watching didn't seem possible. I could only process what I was seeing on a sort of crude, purely aesthetic level. Thank God Ms. Carpen turned the TV off, because I think the second plane hit only a few minutes later.

School was canceled in the middle of Spanish class. By then, people had sort of figured out that a second plane had hit the World Trade Center, and they'd sort of figured out that this was a major terrorist attack, and we'd sort of sensed that we wouldn't be at school till 3:10, which is great, right? Official word came just before noon. School was out. My mom met me just in front of Eastern Middle School. School's out! I said. Both towers collapsed into the ground, my mom said.

On NPR, they were reporting that car bombs were going off in the middle of DC. Well they weren't reporting it, but they were reporting that some people had claimed that car bombs were going off in the middle of DC. It dawned on me how plausible this suddenly sounded. My God. There was another report that the 14th St. bridge had been bombed. I wondered aloud if there would be a war soon. I watched three hours of TV coverage, played touch football in the side yard, played Madden 2002 (we didn't have cable, so video games were our only mode of escape from network news) watched three more hours of TV, wondered if that Sunday's Redskins game would be canceled, did my Spanish homework, for some reason. Sportstalk 980 was simulcasting NBC news; they wouldn't return to anything resembling sports coverage for another four or five days or possibly longer. There is no world, my dad said at dinner.

I couldn't sleep that night, at least not easily. The people jumping from windows was what disturbed me the most. My strongest memory about September 12th--which is to say, my strongest specific memory, other than school getting canceled--was that the only article in that day's Post that wasn't about the attacks was about the health of Redskins running back Stephen Davis.

Have I accomplished anything by listing what I remember from that day? Does it make the destruction of lower Manhattan and the murder of 3,000 innocent people on American soil any easier for me to comprehend? Just the opposite, I think. My memory of that day is highly schematic; one thing happened and then another thing happened and they're things I'll always remember and reflect back upon. But in recalling them like this, I realize they happened to someone else in another time and in another world, and they produced feelings that, for better or worse, I will never feel again.

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