My Sept. 11, 2011

Posted on September 11, 2011

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I haven’t watched any of the memorial tributes on TV today. I got home late last night from a road trip, and I purposefully woke up late this morning to avoid most of it. It’s not because of a contrarian opinion that America is full of itself for using this tragedy as a patriotic bonding agent. I actually don’t feel that way at all.

I’m simply playing Master Avoider today. That day — that time — was tough, it was surreal, and for whatever reason, I’m not really in a commemorative mood. But it’s good to memorialize, remember and share, and I appreciate goosebumps as much as anyone, so I’m torn.

So how about I write a post about the matter instead even though I don’t have anything cohesive to say? Ok.

Around a year, year and a half ago or so, I decided that my first time to New York City would be for the 10-year anniversary of 9/11. I knew there would be … fanfare, for lack of a better word, which I knew would be good for the city and for the rest of us who didn’t experience the event directly but still mourned and feared when it happened. I would spend some time with a good friend as well, and it would be a meaning-filled trip for multiple reasons.

However, personal circumstances. So, a few months ago I chose not to go. Today is small mental agitator about that, making me wonder about my ability to make circumstances happen for myself vs. letting circumstances happen to me.

Then I remember today’s not about that missed personal opportunity. President Kennedy was killed about a mile and a half up the street from me, and like everyone around in the early ’60s has a story about when they heard that news and how they felt, now there’s 9/11. Today’s about sharing those personal stories, so here’s mine.

I was just out of college, working as a news clerk on the Metro desk at The Dallas Morning News. I had worked the night shift the night before, so I was sleeping the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. In my sleepy state I answered a phone call from my boyfriend, who said he heard that the World Trade Center had been bombed.

Remember how I said I haven’t been to NYC yet? Well, I’d definitely heard of the WTC. I knew it had been attacked before for some reason or another. I was fairly certain that it was located in NYC, although I wasn’t entirely certain. There’s some wholesale or retail place here called Dallas World Trade Center; I was pretty sure it was something bigger and more important than that. I just didn’t know.

I told him thanks for letting me know and fell back asleep, my ignorance of location and scale keeping me in a comfortable place of I Don’t Care. Next I got a call from the office manager at work. She said she needed me, along with the entire News department, to come in as soon as possible. My ears perked. I asked if this had something to do with “the explosion.” She said, “Something like that, sweetie.”

My clock radio, and the TV in my parents’ living room, filled me in on the rest while I got ready. I saw replays of the first colossal tower, then the second, swallowing errant airplanes, then crumbling and melting like a couple of cheap sand castles. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. How can airplanes that are toy-sized in comparison bring down the effing Twin Towers? How is this happening up there? What is going on?

Federal and many commercial buildings in downtown Dallas, where the newspaper is located, were evacuating. My mom didn’t want me to go. That’s the thing with chaos: It doesn’t let you know anything. At that hour, no one understood the enemy, how big it was, what its geographic limits were, if it was going to strike next, if it was finished, if we were safe now or if the East Coast was just the beginning.

I drove toward downtown as it was emptying out. The sky was silent and still. I wish I could remember what car I was driving at the time; I think it was my old ’85 Celica with no a/c. KERA 90.1/NPR on the radio piped in pieces of the still-undeveloped story. I had a slight sense of deafness, like being underwater.

When I stepped off the elevator and into the newsroom, I was hit in the face by structure. It was more packed than I’d ever seen it (all hands on deck, of course), with dry erase boards explaining sections, stories, plans for a rare afternoon edition, who was doing what. I was so impressed. In a latter-day, one-paper city, there isn’t much of the high newsroom energy you see in movies about newspapers. This day was an exception. Ordered madness, with an emphasis on ordered.

I had recently gone vegan, but the paper catered in meals for the almost round-the-clock operation that lasted weeks. There was a lot of Corner Bakery, I remember. Trying to determine if egg had been used in the preparation of this or that bit of grub became wearisome, so I ditched the vegan thing.

During this time, an editor from DallasNews.com asked if I wanted to help with data entry on an 9/11 web project they were doing. As the names of the dead were confirmed, they needed to be added to a database we were keeping of the fallen, along with small pieces of information, like a photo, where the person was from and where they worked. I wanted desperately to help with that, to combat that impotent feeling many of us had inside. That was my very first web-specific task. It felt therapeutic (the only time that data entry has provided that benefit).

The absence of planes in the sky for I don’t know how long screamed so loud at me. I rarely noticed airplanes in the air before, because that’s where airplanes go. Seeing the sky in its natural state day after day jarred me into confusion.

A lot has happened since that day: color coded security threat levels, the formation of Homeland Security, being proud of our attack on Taliban strongholds in Afghanistan, being majorly confused about our invasion of Iraq, the frustration of our never-ending involvement in Iraq, arguments about personal freedom vs. national security needs, the economy swirling down the toilet. Wanting to protect the people of a religion about which we were just now beginning to learn, even though we weren’t exactly sure how to feel about it, because that’s what Americans do and to do anything less would mean the enemy had won.

My first trip on an airplane after 9/11 was one year and a month afterward. Airport security didn’t resemble its pre-9/11 self in the least. I realized a Muslim-“looking” man was a passenger, and I felt a mixture of shame and fear when I decided to keep an inconspicuous but fixed eye on every move he made. Of course he was minding his own business, and of course his only crime was appearing to be Muslim.

And for a while, that’s how it was for Muslims, or Arabs. Or for people who were Muslim- or Arab-looking, in the United States of America. My precious country of religious freedom.

I admit that my Christian heart participated in this silent judgement-without-trial a few times in the first few years. But now more Americans, like me, know of Islam as more than just a homogenous, obscure religion from somewhere over in the Middle East. My sense: Now Americans have a better handle on the concept between mainstream and extreme and  more Muslims have joined the national conversation about their religion and customs from which they had been so stubbornly silent at first. This eventual familiarity bred knowledge, then ease, then next, if we’re blessed, it’ll breed boring comfort with each other.  I sense that the mobs have thrown down their pitchforks, at least.

But it’s just been 10 years. I don’t think we can adequately assess how that day has changed us, positively or negatively. We will, in 20, 30, 100 years. History will assess it for us.

For now, we’ve got beautiful memorials, moments of silence, Sunday sermons of reflection, red 9/11 ribbons on NFL football player uniforms, media opinion columns about what this all means, conflicted tears, and history books that remind us that the U.S. has come through worse.

And I’ve got vague feeling that eventually, we’re going to be just fine.

Some good 10-year-anniversary 9/11 visuals and reading:

• New York Time’s amazing ‘The Reckoning’ interactive
• A collection of posts from GoodMenProject.com
• A local recollection of 9/11 in Dallas from PegasusNews.com
• A cool anniversary interactive of audio from DallasNews.com
• Pretty cool collection of stories on a sectioned timeline from Slate

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Posted in: religion, Share-fest, war