On Not Remembering 9/11

Looking back on the bizarre, chaotic world of my childhood

Peter Morgan/REUTERS

I had a friend in elementary school who would always tell us about how his uncle died on 9/11. He would describe the memory of his mother crying on the phone, having just heard the news, and then of her sitting him down and explaining how his uncle wouldn’t be coming around anymore. A couple years later, he clarified that although his uncle did die, he doesn’t actually remember anything from that day. A couple more years later, he admitted that there was no dead uncle.

By the time he admitted the full truth it wasn’t much of a surprise; after all he was barely three years old when it happened and the odds of remembering any specific event at that age are fairly low.

I was never angry at him for lying, because I understood the impulse. He lied for the same reason so many other kids our age lied about remembering that day, the same reason why I’ve always felt a twinge of jealousy whenever an older person would tell their 9/11 story: because we missed out.

Every single person in our lives who was a couple years older than us had their own story about exactly where they were and what they were doing when they first heard the news. We lived about an hour’s drive from New York City, so most of us had parents or relatives that were in the city on the day it happened. Some of us did in fact lose loved ones. There was this massive, world-altering event that changed the lives of everyone around us, including ourselves, and we missed it.

We understood, rationally, that 9/11 was a horrific, traumatic event. We know this because our teachers would talk to us about the event on each anniversary, tell us their own heartbreaking stories. By the time we got to high school, these stories were starting to feel repetitive and self-indulgent on the teachers’ parts. As one kid said to me about it on the bus home from school, “We get it: it was sad.”

They’d always show us a documentary about the event, and these documentaries would always play out the same way: they’d start off with the news anchors on the morning of, back when it was still just a regular Tuesday.

There’d be a minute or so dedicated to how nice the weather was, with a couple of shots of the Manhattan skyline. The sunny blue, cloudless sky over a quiet, peaceful city. You get the sense that the world was perfect that morning, that we didn’t have any real problems until 8:46 am.

And then the first plane would hit, and the news anchors would be confused and concerned, but not panicked. This was probably some sort of accident, or at the very least it was a one-time event.

And then the second plane hits and all hell breaks loose. Cue videos of people in the streets watching in awe and terror, homemade videos of people watching from their apartments, screaming and crying. Things escalated from there, and you know the story — the Pentagon, Flight 93, people jumping off the towers, President Bush in that class full of children, the heroic first responders.

This is the point where the documentaries start to resemble something like an action thriller, with George Bush and Rudy Giuliani as the two heroes trying desperately to save as many lives as possible. These documentaries would end on a hopeful note, one with President Bush giving that famous speech, with Americans on both sides of the political spectrum coming together and supporting each other. “This happened because people hate our freedom,” is a sentiment I heard a lot. “We need to come together as a country,” was another. Freedom, patriotism, unity. Those three words were repeated ad nauseam.

There are times, watching those documentaries or hearing people tell their stories, where I feel like I can understand exactly what it must’ve been like to have been old enough to experience the sheer enormity of that loss.

It’s the specific details that always get me. One teacher told me how she took her husband’s dust-covered clothes to the laundromat the next day and, watching the clothes spin around in the washing machine, suddenly burst into tears. The owner came over with a box of tissues and let her know that she wasn’t alone — all day people had been breaking down as they watched the clothes spin.

There was a segment on the radio show This American Life where Sarah Koenig talks about a guy she met at Pier 94, a place where the families of people who worked at the World Trade Center were giving DNA for the police to use to identify loved ones. The guy had been walking all over the city, posting this flyer of his father over a 40-block area. He’d tried reaching people in his father’s office, visiting every hospital, and he’d just given some DNA.

So I said, ‘what are you going to — what do you do now?’ And he said, ‘I don’t know.’ And he said it like — not just like, ‘I don’t know.’ But he was like, ‘I don’t know where to go.’ I just — he just had no idea where to go or what to do. And he couldn’t go home. It was like, I think there’s a sense like, as long as there’s daylight, you should be traipsing around the city, you know, looking for whoever.

And it was still sort of early afternoon, and I could just tell. He just had no idea what to do, physically, with himself. He said, ‘I was walking around over there, and I realized I was literally walking around in circles. And I don’t know what to do.’

The story about this man who doesn’t know what to do with himself is the one that sticks with me the most. It’s the thing that makes me think I understand not just what 9/11 felt like, but all the horrors that followed after.

It explains the creepy, cult-like wave of country music that followed during the first half of the Bush administration.

It explains Michael Moore getting booed by a bunch of liberal celebrities for opposing the war in Iraq.

It explains how we had a national terror alert system that seemed to go up and down arbitrarily, designed to teach people to be afraid rather than give tangible advice on what to do to keep themselves safe.

It explains how the Patriot Act was pushed through with so little resistance, and how the invasion of Iraq was so easily sold to the public despite the fact that, from today’s perspective at least, it seems so clear that it was a terrible idea sold through transparently fraudulent claims.

Americans were lost and traumatized in the wake of 9/11, and like the man on Pier 94, they didn’t know what to do. They didn’t know where to go. So in this time of directionless pain and suffering, Bush swooped in with a clear message of exactly what they were going to do. Americans processed their heartbreak by invading other countries and getting over two hundred thousand more civilians killed in the process. Americans were vulnerable, Bush took full advantage, and we’re still dealing with the consequences today.

I say “they” when referring to the American response, not “us,” because none of this feels like something that happened to me. I never experienced the trauma of 9/11 because I have no memory of a world in which 9/11 didn’t happen. Soldiers were always dying on the news as a kid. The Indian boys in school were always nicknamed ‘Bin Laden’. ‘Bush did 9/11’ was always scratched into the occasional school desk, as was ‘jet fuel doesn’t melt steel beams.’ My classmates would argue over whether or not it was an inside job, not because we actually believed it but because it was a nice little thought exercise, an interesting ‘what if?’

It’s only when looking back on it as an adult that I realized how weird it truly was.

Such as how as a kid, you weren’t allowed to ask why 9/11 happened. Well, you could, but you wouldn’t get a straight answer. “There are people out there who are jealous of our freedom,” was the common response, and you wouldn’t get any details past that. You couldn’t bring up the slaughter of Iraqi civilians in the Gulf War, the U.S.-instigated sanctions on Iraq throughout the nineties, or America’s support for brutal dictatorships throughout the Middle East.

Not that I brought any of those things up, but I saw people who did, and it never went well. To acknowledge these things was to spit on the victims of 9/11, to spit on the brave men fighting for our freedom overseas. To point out that Bush lied about weapons of mass destruction would be to hate America.

As a kid I’d hear about Iraqi deaths overseas and never once thought about them — not even the civilians — as people. They were the enemies, they hated us, they wanted to kill us, they needed to die. I’d watch the war footage and cheer on our soldiers like I’d later cheer on Liam Neeson in Taken. I remember celebrating the death of Bin Laden with my friends in eighth grade, and being moved by the footage of Mets and Phillies fans breaking out into a “U-S-A!” chant in the middle of a baseball game.

Looking back, it’s all bizarre. Did I really take so much joy from the death of Bin Laden? Granted, he deserved it, but it’s not like killing him actually solved anything. 9/11 still happened. Americans still responded exactly how he wanted us to react, with hyper-paranoia controlling every single decision we made. Our freedoms had been restricted, our international reputation had plummeted, we’d wasted trillions of dollars and thousands of American lives on an unnecessary, immoral war. Bin Laden’s death wasn’t a victory so much as a minor consolation. In hindsight, the sheer amount of glee we took out of it feels pathetic more than anything else.

There’s a childishness in the way Americans talk about foreign policy that, as I get older, becomes harder and harder to ignore. There are otherwise very smart, sophisticated American citizens who still repeat the “they just hate our freedom” line without any sense of irony. Fully grown adults who will always consider the United States to be the unquestioned good guy in every global conflict. Anything the military does is good because if it wasn’t good they wouldn’t have done it.

Half the time when you ask an older adult what those first few months after the attack were like, they’ll say something like, “For one special moment, there were no Republicans or Democrats — we were just Americans, united as one.” They’ll often say how they kind of miss that feeling, where the country seemed to be all on the same page. As a kid this sounded heartwarming, but unity isn’t inherently a good thing. Not when that unity is founded on hyper-nationalistic, war-mongering rhetoric.

This dangerous, over-simplified narrative of 9/11 — the one where America was attacked for no reason and we handled the situation perfectly fine — is the one that still mostly prevails today. During the 2020 General Election, Kamala Harris received a lot of flak from leftists for what she said on the 19th anniversary of the event:

“What our attackers failed to understand is that the darkness they hoped would envelop us on 9/11 instead summoned our most radiant and defined human instincts.”

This is a patently false characterization of what happened, but to say anything else would’ve been political suicide for Harris. The childish, incurious “jealous of our freedom” mindset still persists, and I don’t see it changing any time soon. America’s inability to look at its own actions critically is an issue that isn’t going away.

But maybe I’m being callous by being so critical. Like I said, I wasn’t really there.

I like to think that if I were an adult when it happened, I wouldn’t have gotten so swept up in the cult-like paranoia and hyper-patriotism that followed. I like to think I would’ve been among the people who opposed the war from the very beginning.

Statistically speaking, that’s unlikely. Bush’s approval ratings climbed all the way up to 90% in the aftermath of the incident, support for the war was at 72% when it started, and the entire mainstream media was egging it on. It’s easy to see how I could’ve bought into it. Lord knows I bought into it as a kid.

It makes me wonder about the kids growing up today in the pandemic, too young to understand what’s going on but absorbing it all through osmosis anyway. When they look back at all this fifteen years from now, I hope they have the sense of “Wait, that actually happened?” that I have whenever I remember the whole freedom fries controversy, the cancellation of the Dixie Chicks, or the debate over building a mosque a few blocks away from Ground Zero.

I assume that, like with 9/11, this period of our lives is something they’re going to be taught about a lot in class as they get older. Every adult they interact with will have a long, self-indulgent story about where they were when this all went down and how they handled it. They will probably get sick of hearing about it and, at some point, start to wish they were old enough to remember living through it themselves, so they could stop feeling like they’re being left out of the conversation.

I hope they look back at all this later with a critical eye, and come to understand that so much about the way the situation was handled was not okay. I hope with them, just like I hope with us, that they’ll learn from their elders’ mistakes and become a smarter, savvier group of adults going forward. I don’t want to go back to the world I grew up in, and I hope they don’t want to either.

I am a cautionary tale for others. Follow my newsletter: https://mikeb98.substack.com/ Follow me on twitter: @98MikeB

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