September 11, Seven Years On

Everybody remembers the weather.

It’s a funny thing – ask anybody who was conscious around the time of a major world event, and the details people remember! The air was cool, the sky cloudless and an appealing shade of blue, across most of the eastern half of the US that morning. It served only to heighten the irony, that out of that sky could come what did.

Like so many, I first heard the news in fragments. I was a freshman in high school – I had turned fifteen just the day before – and heard someone say, “Did you hear about the planes crashed into the World Trade Center?” in the hall between classes. I don’t recall it giving me pause – plane crashes happen, and I was unlikely to know anyone on it, and besides the Empire State Building had been hit by a plane once, hadn’t it? I moved on to my next class.

The teacher there stood near the door, and as soon as the bell had rung informed us of the basic details of the morning’s events. Nobody knew quite what had happened at that point, but by the time our class shuffled into the school library, where a TV had been set up to play CNN, both towers had already come down. The picture on the screen was a dark black cloud of smoke, drifting languidly across the New York skyline. There was no horror in it – not until they replayed the footage from earlier, and we saw what had caused it.

The networks were relentless in this, playing over and over the same shots of the buildings pancaking in on themselves, the television antenna sinking straight down out of frame, the thousands of soot-oiled office workers screaming in terror and sailing blindly past the camera on bare feet, having run out of their shoes. The timeline of the morning was compressed: instead of taking the hour and a half or so it really did, the replays dispensed with the collision and collapse in a matter of seconds. The word “attack” began to filter into the news coverage.

It seemed to me that most of my classmates were somewhat nonplussed by all this, one even going so far as to proclaim it “cool”: this was real interesting news! I was too busy to be offended by this: I was (and still am) something of a building buff, I knew how many people worked in and visited the towers each day, and in my mind every single one of them had just died. I began to sob uncontrollably, shoving my fist in my mouth to stop it when my peers looked at me funny. The teacher came over and hesitantly patted me on the back in an attempt at comfort. It failed; after all, he was just as dumbstruck as I.

Every teacher kept the radio on all day, but there wasn’t any more news fifteen-year-old me cared about. President Bush went on television and said his piece, the country readied for war. Such things take time to process, and my young head couldn’t handle a great deal more, but the only natural response in times like that is to seek out as much information as possible. Research disconnects you from your subject of study. So upon going home at the end of the day, I turned on the television. Nearly every station was playing some form of news – one station had even chosen a feed from Canada, and PBS was rebroadcasting the BBC’s live coverage. I watched for a while, and then tried the internet.

At the time, I regularly watched Newsround over the web feed – there is no regular news program for kids in America – and read the print site as well. Trying to make sense of it all, I wrote a comment on the story about the attacks. I can only remember the flavor of the thing; it was mostly questions I wanted answered, everybody wanted answered, but the BBC used it as a Press Pack report. It’s still archived somewhere, I’m sure.

Seven years later, I’m still waiting for answers to some of them.

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That morning has colored almost every world event since in one way or another – the world changed, in a very real sense, on September 11. Here, there are more flags, more suspicion of strangers, more emphasis on “safety”. And, too, people seem to worry more about their families, make plans for the future that involve contingencies nobody used to ever think about. But our interests have diversified again. The world has slowly become a world again, not just a place where something awful happened. Still, seven years isn’t that long in any realistic terms. Those of us with memories of that day will carry them much longer. We must.

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