September 11, 2001/2011

11Sep11

Some disconnected thoughts on September 11, then and now:

***

Everyone has their own “where were you” story. This is mine:

I was watching The West Wing when the first plane hit. During an ad break Jim Waley came on and announced that a plane had crashed into one of the towers. Like many others, I assumed it was pilot error, a small plane that had veered off course (now, everyone assumes terrorism first, accident second). Channel 9 kept The West Wing going, but every ad break Waley would come back on with updates – apparently he wanted to fully interrupt the broadcast and go straight to the news but higher-ups in the station shut him down. When The West Wing finished channel 9 cut straight to a live feed of CNN, which is why I saw, live, the second plane hit, both towers fall, and learnt about the attack on the Pentagon. I must’ve stayed up until 3am watching the coverage, and I remember setting my alarm and getting up at 6.30 that morning to go back and watch more.

Tasmanian schools were on holiday then, and classes didn’t go back for a week and a half, so we had plenty of time to sit around and be horrified. I remember when we did go back to school, the teacher for one of my afternoon classes giving up and giving the entire period over to talking about what had happened – I think he realised that we all needed to get it out of our system in some way.

***

This afternoon I headed to the “Art on Foot” festival, held on the streets of downtown DC. I arrived around lunch, when the event should’ve been packed, but there was hardly anyone around. I bought some gelato and got talking to the vendor, who said that it had been a lot busier the day before. He talked about how he’d watched a documentary on heroic 9/11 stories earlier in the week; he was in awe that new tales were still emerging.

I walked down a few blocks to “Freedom Plaza” where there was an event going on as part of the 9/11 Day of Service project. It’s entirely possible there were more police at the event than volunteers. Part of the problem is that the only thing about Freedom Plaza that makes it suitable for this kind of event is its name – a block of concrete between two major roads, there’s no shade whatsoever, which is a bit of a problem on a hot day like today. But I think the main problem was that not many people wanted to come out at all, irrespective of the weather, particularly to a place with a crowd of people.

Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton was speaking when I arrived, but not many people were listening. I sat in the shade behind the stage, but did stand (and cry a little, I admit) when a high school choir came on and sang the national anthem.

To continue the 9/11 theme of the day, I walked over to the National Museum of American History, which was hosting a temporary exhibition of objects retrieved from the crash sites. The line to get into the exhibition was ridiculously long (wait times of 1.5 hours, at least) so I didn’t go in, but in a separate theatre they were showing 9/11: Stories in Fragments, a new documentary about the items from the exhibition.

God. Ten years later, the footage of those planes hitting the towers, and of one and then the other falling, is still profoundly shocking. I think you can watch the full documentary on the Smithsonian Channel website, and I’d strongly recommend it – touching and poignant stories, as well as some great insights into how the Smithsonian went about fulfilling its mission of being the official repository for objects relating to the attacks.

In for a penny, in for a pound, I decided to round out the day with a visit to the Pentagon Memorial. The Pentagon metro stop presented me with this disturbing ad when I stepped off the train:

Lovely. (The entire station was decked out in similar posters.)

I’d never been to the Memorial before. It’s in an unfortunate location – you have to walk quite a way across a parking lot to reach it – but then we can’t choose the location for acts of terror.

The memorial itself is… nice, I guess, and I suspect will be less harsh and more welcoming once the trees and grasses grow.

Unfortunately a lot of the powerful symbolism present in the design isn’t immediately clear, and it was only after listening to the (excellent) audio tour created by the Pentagon Memorial Fund that I understood the layout properly. The Vietnam Memorial doesn’t need a 24 minute audio tour to explain why it’s powerful; it just is. Unfortunately that’s not the case here.

The benches are arranged by the age of the victim; the youngest was only three.

***

Living in the US this year has given me a new perspective on the attacks. A lot of my thoughts on the topic are confused and often contradictory, but I do know that I’m far less likely to sneer and cynically dismiss the overt displays of patriotism and flag-waving that we saw in 2001, and still see today. Undoubtedly enormous, grave mistakes were made in the days, weeks, months and years following the attacks. But it’s possible to judge those mistakes, and the people who made them, while still respecting the ways in which the American people dealt with their collective grief. I don’t think I’d really appreciated what a collective wound the attacks had caused on this nation’s psyche until I stood at Ground Zero back in 2008, and at the Pentagon Memorial this year.

If the planes that fly low behind the Lincoln Memorial on their way to Reagan National Airport make me feel a little uneasy then I can’t imagine how it makes those people who were at the Pentagon that day ten years ago feel. When the city in which you live is regularly the target of terrorist threats (as it was this week) then you have to work extra hard not to “give in” to the fear, whatever “giving in” to the fear would actually involve. It’s so sad that when the earthquake hit a few weeks ago, most people’s first thought (including mine) was “terrorist attack.” How long before that stops being our first assumption?

And how long before the US moves on from the large yearly memorial services and collective displays of  remembrance that we saw today? The last memorial service for the victims of the Port Arthur massacre was held in 2006, ten years after the shootings. I don’t have any deep or profound thoughts on this topic, and I’m absolutely not going to try to say that people should have moved on by now etc. because clearly that would be stupid.

But it’s still something that fascinates me – what does it actually mean when we say “Never Forget”? Elizabeth Giddens wrote in the NYT last week about the Prison Ships Martyrs Monument in Brooklyn, the final resting place for 11,500 Americans who died during the Revolutionary War on British prison ships. 20,000 showed up for the memorial’s dedication in 1908, but its purpose is largely forgotten today. While I think the 9/11 memorial in New York will be relevant for longer, as Giddens points out at the end of her piece, “Never is an awfully long time.”

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2 Responses to “September 11, 2001/2011”

  1. 1 Candice

    An amazing read!

  2. 2 Greg

    I was just watching Flight 93 and thinking about that day as I always do this time of year. I too was watching the west wing and was trying to remember who was doing the news bulletins on 9. I thought it was Jim Waley and in searching for the answer came across your post. Amazing that your memory of that night is almost identical to mine. It was almost like I wrote it myself. I’ll never forget the west wing ending and seeing that second plane hit the building live to air.


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