I will always think of September 11, 2001 as the Kennedy Assassination of my adolescence. It’s not because of any parallels between the actual events that could possibly be drawn; it’s rather because like the members of my parents’ generation who have told me their memories of Kennedy’s death, September 11 is the day whose story I will preface with, ‘I remember where I was…’, when I tell my hypothetical future children about it, when I weave my history into America’s, into the world’s. My mother was five years and four months old when Kennedy was shot, and she doesn’t remember, but my father is seven years her senior, and I remember him telling me of it, of how he was sitting in school and how he felt hearing the news, and I never understood how that moment, that day could exist so crystallized in his memory until I was fifteen years old, sitting cross-legged on my mother’s bedroom floor with my back against our old blue sectional sofa, fingers slack around the remote and my whole body still with shock and horror and devastation and denial as I watched the second tower fall. And I remember thinking then, in the midst of all of it, that I would grow to tell my children, or someone’s children, of the day I woke up and wandered downstairs to collect the newspaper and make myself a cup of tea, as I always did; of how my mother was on her treadmill, as always, but instead of our traditional acknowledgment of each other, she turned her face toward me and edged one ear of her headphones forward off her ear and said, ‘Go back upstairs and turn on the television; the radio says a plane’s crashed into the World Trade Center’; and I, in wonderment that my mother was actually telling me to watch tv and accompanied by naive thoughts of Orson Welles, went back upstairs and watched.
It’s nine years later, and the Pentagon is whole again, and there’s a gorgeous memorial, quiet and powerful, pointing to the section once ruined. There’s a memorial being built in a field in Pennsylvania. And in New York City, there’s a scar in the skyline and a pit in the pavement that’s slowly being filled in, and there’s a museum that has gathered together not only pieces from that day but also what came after: the cards and the gifts and the photos and the messages of the countries of the world, so many of whom were also affected that day: countries who lost citizens, and citizens of those countries who lost mothers and fathers and daughters and sons (and brothers and sisters and uncles and aunts and and). And for those of us who have the luxury not to think about it every day, there’s this day every year when we wonder at and ponder the scars again, when we summon up the memories and wake the ghosts and try again to make sense of that day.
I was so much younger then. There was so much I didn’t know of the world, so much I didn’t understand about humanity. And it’s not that I know or understand so very much more now, but I think more often, now, of what I will tell those hypothetical someones about this day in ten more years. Nine, eight, seven years ago, I would have called this day an attack on America, and it was, in a more than literal sense, but as time goes on I become more and more aware that the fact is that the nearly 3,000 people who died on that day were simply that: people. They were human beings, and my outrage now, my devastation, isn’t based on any sort of national pride or loyalty. It’s based on what I have seen in the eyes of friends and colleagues when they speak of who or what they lost that day, based on the words people I know won’t say and the places they won’t go, based on my uncle crying when we watch a documentary about the Pentagon victims, some of whom were his friends, and me pretending like I’m crying for them and not for him. It’s based on the fact that on every September 11, my social network feeds are filled with the memories about those lost by people from all over the world. It’s based on the love I have and the pain I feel for every single person hurt that day, struck that day, personally and permanently scarred by that day: people who might be Americans but aren’t necessarily, people of every race, colour, creed, religion, gender, sex, and every adjective in every language of the world.
And when I speak of this day to my children, when I weave my own history into the world’s like I have a right to do it, I will speak to them of the flood of patriotism that we Americans suddenly all felt, of all the flags that everyone suddenly remembered they had, of the things of which we were reminded, having so often taken them for granted. But I will speak to them not as the American I felt I was that day, not as a person who lives in a country, but rather as a person who lives in this world. I will tell them how in the years following that day, I began to see this planet not as countries made up of people but as people made into countries. I will tell them how I felt the world continuously shrinking, how I saw the lines I had grown up drawing in my mind fading, how I saw the extent to which the life I had sometimes thought I had a right to was the result of a series of coincidences. I will speak to them of the desperation that I have never felt and will very likely never feel that made 19 people so desperately angry that their desire to hurt trumped their desire to live. And I will not excuse them or their actions, but I will tell my children that what I have seen in the world since has made me understand, to the infinitesimal extent that one can understand what one has never lived, why the faults of humanity lead to places like this, to scars like these, to me cross-legged on the floor with my back against an old blue sofa.
And when I speak of this day to my children, I will tell them to remember this day and the other days like it, when the people in this world hurt each other in uncountable, unfathomable, inexpressible ways. I will teach them to remember, the way I have been taught to remember, that every single person in the world holds histories inside of themselves. I will tell them to seek out those stories. I will tell them to learn about and from what and who they think is Other than them, and I will tell them to work to erase those lines because they are constructs of our own pride, of our own fear. And I will tell them to remember all of this not out of hatred or fear but out of love. I will tell them to temper everything they do and are with love, as much as it is possible for them to do so. Because this is what that girl nine years ago didn’t know then, couldn’t see that she would learn in the years subsequent to those moments she sat crying as flickering pictures of towers collapsing in on themselves flashed in front of her: in this fight to heal the wounds that we humans inflict on each other in a horrific and seemingly-endless cycle, love isn’t a perfect weapon, but it’s the best one we’ve got.