(I wrote this reflection in September, 2012. Now it is September, 2016)
For a while after September 11th we didn’t know how to refer to the cataclysm we spoke of day and night. “The bombing” wasn’t accurate. “The attacks on the World Trade Center” was too much of a mouthful and left out the Pentagon and the plane that fell in the Pennsylvania countryside. What we usually said was “when it happened” or “since it happened.” There was no need to say what “it” was. After a while—weeks? longer?—it acquired a name: “September 11th” or “9/11.” Now that date is here again.
A year ago, I was at my desk when my daughter phoned to say that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. “Listen to the radio!” she told me, and rushed back to her own radio. I turned on WNYC, the source of news in our television-less household. Nothing but an unnerving silence. I learned later that WNYC’s transmission antenna had been on top of one of the towers. It was months before I heard WNYC’s familiar voices again. I tried another radio station. Confusingly, they seemed to be talking about two planes, not one. I called to the carpenters who were working on my house. They came inside and we listened to the unfolding news together, staring at each other in disbelief. Our small town is an hour and a half from Times Square. Local residents go there for lunch, or a show, or to work. Many of us have family members and close friends who live in the city.
From that moment on, I had the unprecedented sense of knowing that whoever I was with, strangers or not, many or few, we were all engulfed in the same shock and grief. Conversations began easily, slipping without hesitation to feelings and personal stories. Our emotions were on our skin. Every day I wept, prompted to tears by a song, a radio interview, a news report of a rescue or a last message of love on someone’s voice mail. I didn’t grieve for the World Trade Center itself. I had always disliked the arrogance and ugliness of the buildings: the flaunting of wealth and power. My tears were for the three thousand people in the planes and the buildings who had had scant moments to know that they were about to die; it was for their families; it was for us, exiled forever from our illusion of safety.
But it was not long before that extraordinary shared grief became mixed with a sense of profound division. The clamor for violent retaliation rose quickly, undampened by the fact we could not identify any other nation as being responsible for the attacks. Some took revenge into their own hands by insulting or assaulting people who might be, by their appearance or name, of Arab origin. Others of us had different instincts, fearing most of all the prospect of a war that was potentially endless against the abstraction of “terror.” We wanted to protect ourselves without creating more tragedy.
American flags sprouted overnight on cars, houses, storefronts, and telephone poles. They made me afraid and angry—most of all when they were raised like horns on each side of a brand-new, gas-hungry SUV, as though our addiction to oil had nothing to do with this catastrophe. I had to calm myself by seeing the flags as superstitiousness, signs of fear and the longing to be safe, like two crossed fingers held up against the devil. Someone planted a small flag in the pot of chrysanthemums on the porch of the converted Victorian house where we had an office. After a couple of days I asked my neighbor in the office next door if he knew who’d put it there. He didn’t. He went downstairs to ask the building’s owner, and came back in a minute, flag in hand. The owner had no idea how it had got there either. None of us embraced the bristling patriotism it represented. The flag did not return to the porch.
I had the strange sensation of being in a prolonged and shared dream: the difference between dreaming and waking became blurred. Like others, I felt a dreadful vulnerability and fatalism, along with disbelief. Could this really happen? Had this really happened? Then why not again, and worse? Again, the dreamlike sense of inevitability, passivity in the face of doom. My husband was about to go to Burundi to work with a group of Hutu and Tutsi actors and in preparation was reading a book about the massacre in Rwanda called We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families. The title of the book flooded me with despair for the Rwandans whose fatalistic words these were, but also, I realized, for ourselves. I turned the book over on its back every time I saw it lying on a table or the couch.
I was travelling too. A couple of weeks after 9/11 I was in Germany, teaching theatre. Participants in their sixties, old traumas stirred up by the attacks, told stories about being bombed in the Second World War. They were full of concern and empathy for us. I appreciated their kindness but I could talk about what had happened for only a few minutes before I had to excuse myself and find somewhere to cry.
The night before I was to fly home I was in an Indian restaurant in Berlin. “The war has started,” the waiter told me in English, smiling. Perhaps he thought I would be pleased. Later that night, sickened, I watched news coverage of the first US attacks on Afghanistan. I tried to block thoughts of the increased danger of air travel now that we were “at war.” In Zurich airport, where I waited for several hours between flights, passengers sat in tense silence. When a door slammed people leapt up from their seats, ready to run.
Travelling again in February and April, this time to New Zealand and Japan, I hardly heard the words “9/11” at all. The events of that day, though deeply felt everywhere in the world at the time, had receded for people in other countries and in other parts of the US. In New Zealand the topic among my friends and relatives was the increasingly dangerous behavior of Bush and his team. Although I shared their perception I surprised myself by wanting to be back home where others still lived with the aftermath of trauma the way I did, constantly present in our feelings as well as in the practicalities of our daily lives. Life was far from back to normal.
Now it is a year later. In my community we still say and hear “September 11” or “9/11” many times a day. The skies have cleared but the loss of life and livelihood shadow us.
We are still afraid, but the fear of another terrorist attack is now compounded by the violence that our own government has unleashed and will yet unleash, unconstrained, it seems, by accountability to the rest of the world. The backlash against people of Muslim or Middle Eastern origin has shifted from assaults by individuals to the more insidious threat of imprisonment and deportation. Long-standing residents have been taken away in the middle of the night, even in this benign town. In March the New York Times reported that 1,000 people from the northeast were being detained in New Jersey jails, unnamed and uncharged. The government is busy creating a massively funded department of “homeland security” which will employ 170,000 people and operate in secrecy. The last presidential election taught us not to count on the democratic process. We have never been so powerless.
We live now with a sense of contingency: nothing is the same, nothing is safe, danger is everywhere. And yet ordinary life continues, in its comfortingly small scale. We treasure our joys and hold hands against terror.