Thursday, September 11, 2014

9/11 From Someone Raised in its Shadow

Today is September 11th. 9/11. 9-1-1.

You don’t need an introduction. Or a rehash. Even if you don’t live in the US, you probably know a rough idea of what happened.

It’s amazing that it’s been 13 years since the attacks. I don’t even know how to process that. I’ve spent more than half of my life living in 9/11’s shadow. Those towers cast long, dark shadows, even after they were gone.

Here are things I remember:

I remember I was 12 years old. I was in 1st period Geography class (or maybe it was 2nd…it’s been a long time…). My teacher was an awesome guy. He was in the Army, if memory serves. He used to tell us tons of great stories about shenanigans that happened while he was on duty. He was stationed in the jungle once when his troop was bombarded by monkey hurling poop at them. He said his sergeant was so covered in poop at the end of things that he just walked into the ocean fully clothed and let the waves wash him out a bit and wash him off.

I don’t remember where we were in the class. I could probably figure it out by looking up the times of the attacks, but I’ve never really thought about doing that before. This is just off the top of my head. Anyway, at some point, someone came into the room and said something to my teacher. He jumped up, led us all to the library. The TV was running. We all sat down in front of the TV while he talked to the librarian. Whatever was going on, it was serious. He looked scared. She looked scared.

The TV showed the smoking top of a building, one of the towers. We didn’t know what was happening, but the scroll at the bottom told us all we needed to know: a plane had flown into the towers. We didn’t know, at the time, that it was an attack, until the second plane hit live on TV.

We were 12. We were stupid. We realized that it was an attack not long after that. We got giggly. Excited. We didn’t fully grasp the reality of what was happening. It was almost like watching a movie. I don’t remember when I learned about the Pentagon attack, but I don’t think I believed it at first. I thought it was just over-excited people telling stories, trying to make things more exciting than they were.

I’m ashamed to admit, but I remember my friends and I, we started talking about going to war. What it meant. And I remember making jokes with my classmates about how they’d messed with the wrong people, that we were going to blow them off the map. 12-year-olds aren’t really equipped to deal with something as complicated and horrifying as war.

It wasn’t until after I was alone, until I’d stopped feeding off of everyone else’s excitement, that I started worrying that more attacks might happen. Would they bomb my school? Would we even go to school the next day?

I don’t know if I saw the towers fall while we were in the library, or if it was after I got home and I saw a replay on the news.

I remember rumors flying everywhere. The terrorists had bombed Pennsylvania, they were going after the Statue of Liberty, they were going to bomb sports stadiums during games. Surely they wouldn’t bomb my school, though. We were probably safe. We were middle of nowhere Arkansas.

I’m not sure who worried they’d go after the nuclear reactor in Russellville, maybe my mom. All I know is even Arkansas felt like a potential target. Nowhere felt safe.

The full reality of things didn’t really hit me until I went home. My mom was watching the news. She hugged us. We spent the next two weeks watching CNN. There were so many people missing. So many people crying, with handmade signs, flagging down every camera man they could, trying desperately to find their loved ones.

I remember it was basically impossible to find an American flag for a while. They were sold out everywhere. We wanted one to fly out of our car window, to show we were Americans, that we weren’t afraid of those monsters that attacked us.

Looking back on that time, I have this strange split, between the fear of those foreign countries, of those strange religions, and the knowledge I gained later. Of how that honest fear of the unknown was exploited, manipulated. Twisted and pushed.

I remember the pride I felt when we all pitched in together. Americans standing side-by-side, working together. No races. No classes. Just people helping people, recovering from the chaos.

I didn’t think about what it meant for people who were Muslim. I didn’t even consciously realize there were Muslim people in America. To me, they were all foreigners. They were all Others, form Over There.

I remember during the 2004 elections praying to God that George Bush would win another term because lots of my relatives said that if Kerry won, “the Muslims would take over this country without a shot.”

I remember learning that Islam was one of the fastest growing religions in the world and that it wouldn’t be long before they far outnumbered Us. Us, to me at the time, was Christians, and I remember feeling scared by that thought, but not being sure why I felt that way. I remember the same confused feeling when I learned that, based on birth rates, Whites would eventually be in the minority in the world. I don’t know why this scared me, just that it did.

I remember feeling a disconnect from the people around me, even after the 9/11 attacks. I remember speaking to one relative that I had loved and respected my whole life saying to me in Walmart, “We should round them all up and send them back where they came from.” And I remember saying, “But people born here wouldn’t have anything to do with that. Why do that?” And my relative just repeated, “Round them all up and send them back.”

I didn’t push the issue.

Thinking about 9/11 makes me angry. Not just because of the obvious horror, but also because I have spent nearly half my life sorting through the lies and scaremongering done in the name of "democracy". A lot of my opinions and beliefs in life have been influenced by 9/11. I learned a lot about ugliness in the wake--foreign, sure, but especially domestic.

I wish I could look back at 9/11 as a time where we were our best selves. A tragic moment where we rose up against an evil and stood defiant. Where we were the good guys.

I wish I could.