Saturday, September 11, 2010

Remembering 9/11

Nine years ago today I was driving from Houston to College Station when Islamists hijacked four passenger jets in a coordinated attack upon the United States. I was giving my colleague Itshak Borosh a ride to work that morning; otherwise I would have been listening to the radio.

When I arrived, the worst was over. Having driven an hour and a half in radio silence, I was oblivious to what had occurred. I greeted the department’s computer technician merrily. “How are you today?” I chirped. “How the f——k do you think I am?” he said. Taken aback, I asked what was wrong. “Don’t you know?” he said. But I didn’t. He told me that two planes had crashed into the World Trade Center and both towers had collapsed. I stared at him uncomprehendingly. His words made no sense. Nothing in my experience had prepared me to make sense of his words.

I lived in New York for six years, working as a business reporter. Even though the Twin Towers were only about a decade old by then, they seemed to a newcomer as if they had always been there, anchoring lower Manhattan, inhumanly huge, immovable, as permanent as a mountain. To imagine their having collapsed was unimaginable.

I rushed to my office and switched on the radio. No one on the air knew what to say. I found video of the Towers’ collapse on the BBC site. I watched it several times, struggling to do more than gasp.

My lecture course in American literature was due to start, but I couldn’t teach. I still had no words for what I had seen and heard. As I left the building, I ran into a colleague, a James scholar. “Can you believe it?” I asked numbly. (Intuitively I grasped that no one would be thinking about anything else.) “Well, this is inevitably what happens when there is such a disparity of power,” he announced. I was so shocked that I could not react. My colleague nodded as if we understood each other, and went on his way. Only after he had entered the building did I begin to shake with anger.

I have written elsewhere about my students’ reaction, which was far more determined and clear-thinking than my own. Later I learned that most of my colleagues had gone on with their classes as if nothing had occurred. Itshak later told me that he had not even mentioned the day’s events to his students.

But I was in no mood to teach. I cancelled my afternoon class and drove as fast as I could back to Houston. I only wanted to be with my wife. We sat beside each other on the couch till late into the night, watching again and again as video showed United 175 striking the south tower and the Towers collapsing. Since then, of course, network television will not air the footage. My twin sons, born eighteen months after the attack, have never seen it, and I don’t know how to begin to tell them about it. I bought them a copy of Mordicai Gerstein’s Man Who Walked Between the Towers, an illustrated account of Philippe Petit’s tight-rope walk between the Twin Towers in 1974. The book ends by observing that the Towers are gone, but does not say why.

A national silence is slowly enveloping the bloodiest attack on American soil in American history.


Jonathan said...

Dr. Meyers,

A couple of points:

1. Here in Canada there is no similar blackout of the footage. Yesterday, it was hard to not find it.

2. I remember a conversation with a professor who studied the history of disease where he pointed out, in some amazement, the near-complete vanishing of the Spanish Flu of 1918 from public memory and consciousness. Some authors of fiction, like now with September 11, addressed the topic, and within the last thirty years it has become a favored topic among historians - but for almost half a century, it was completely off the map.

He suggested the flu was such a traumatic experience for the nation that society was eager to erase the entire experience from memory. This eagerness was neither conscious nor a sign of disrespect, but indicated how profound was the disease's impact.

In a way unlike many other world and national events - in part because it was measured in hours, rather than minutes or instants, on live television - many in the country experienced the evil on September 11 in ways that were both personal and visceral.

I wonder ,then, if the silence you notice demonstrates only the degree of those events' power and influence, rather than a willful disrespect or forgetting. Memory, after all, is separate from speech.

"The memory of the just is blessed"


PMH said...

For me it took a while for the horror to set in. I had to "read" the accounts of people trapped in the airplanes and building (the few that were available) and the people driven by heat, smoke, and flames out into the air and to their deaths below.
Analyzing my lack of response as I watched it on TV, I was mindful of McCluen's axiom that the medium is the message. TV made my experience "immediate," but at the same time somehow "lite" and unreal--at least for me. I like Foer's novel of a young man trying to come to terms with the loss of his father, so different from Vonnegut's response to his own horror in Dresden (which is also in Foer's novel).

Tertium Quid said...

I remember a lawyer in our office, a smug and arrogant woman who claimed to be a liberal, suggest that we nuke everything between Algeria and Pakistan.