Trauma gets burnt into your DNA and lingers there until the right time to come out. For me, the trauma of what happened 21 years ago today comes to the fore every first week in September.
New York City is going through another of those beautiful September weeks, when the air and temperature are just perfect. The crisp warmth of later summer and the return of college kids brings the city back to a sense of normalcy. But for those who were around on 9/11, it also brings back some distant trauma.
If you’re old enough to drink as you read this, you were born before America’s focus changed from a sense of global might to the fear of terrorists coming from somewhere off its shoes.
Two wars, a pandemic, and a few cases of domestic-born terrorism have replaced the fears born of that period. Yet for some, like myself, it is still a day of remembrance. My little corner of the web doesn’t get updated that often. Yet every year, I feel a need to honor the friends I lost on that day.
This year, I am wondering about how the trauma that imprinted itself on New Yorkers (and people in Pennsylvania and DC) on that day continues to keep disturbing our small everyday routine.
For me, personally, it is no longer a year-long set of concerns but more something unconscious which rears its head as the date approaches. For example, I can not get on a plane on that day. It just feels… wrong. Intellectually, I know it’s a purely irrational fear. The chances of a terrorist attack using planes are low. Chances it would happen on 9/11 again are even lower. Yet that irrational behavior wraps a comfort blanket around me. By believing that date is the one, the other 364 days out of the year feel… safer?
Safety is another one of those evasive components. In early 2020, terrorism and war were still among some of the top fears around. With the Covid-19 pandemic, and now the monkey pox epidemic, and the return of polio, it seems fears have moved into the realm of healthcare. The rise of extreme anti-government ideology within one of the major parties drives fears of a country potentially on the brink of civil war.
The pullout from Afghanistan made what happens overseas less of a concern for Americans. The level of control over the pandemic seems to have made a large part of America worry less about health. And the continued denial by some about facts related to elections seems to present a distorted image of who’s in charge and how the country is working.
With all this on the front of people’s minds (not to mention worries, from some, about the corrosive impact of technology on our society, and the burning up of the planet), remembering 9/11 seems small.
To explain to a new generation the fear that gripped the country and drove it to invade not one but two countries is nearly impossible. The behavior was irrational then and looks even more so from a distance.
But if we do not pause and reflect, what lessons can be really learned from those disruptive moments? How can we find ways to remember, grieve, and learn from the tragic mistakes that led to such an event, and the ones that led to other events afterward.
As humans, our ability to record and reflects separates us from a lot of other species. It is a large part of what makes us us. Our ability to tell stories of the past and pass that knowledge on to future generations is a sacred covenant our species has observed since the dawn of history.
History is record. These words are record. In the grand scheme of things, they may not represent much but they are there to honor those who cannot speak anymore. They were here. They had lives. Their lives were tragically taken away on that day.
If you were around on that day, if you’re over 21, take a pause and reflect. Reach out to someone you knew then and tell them that you care.
If you weren’t around on that day, this is what remembrance looks like. Your generation either has or will be marked with similar holes in your hearts. Do not ignore them. Do not avoid the pain. Face it, and reach out to someone who went through that experience with you. Share and recover.
That is what we do as humans. That is what makes us human. And that is how we turn the horror of those moments into something fresh, something positive, something that makes us whole again.
Carlos Dominguez, Mark Ellis, Melissa Vincent, Michael DiPasquale, Cynthia Giugliano, Jeremy Glick, David Halderman, Steve Weinberg, Gerard Jean Baptiste, Tom McCann, David Vera.
This post is part of a continuing series in which I remember those I knew who were lost on that day. Here are the previous years: 2021, 2020, 2019, 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005, 2004, 2003, and 2002. For context, you might want to read The day after, which is about as raw as one can get about that day as I wrote that piece less than 36 hours after the first plane hit. This is the longest series I’ve ever written and I expect to continue yearly until I can no longer write.