Remembering 9/11 Before ‘9/11’

Jerry Holt/Star Tribune 7/22/2004-------Greg Bill of Minneapolis thumbs through the 9/11 commission report at Barnes and Noble in downtown Minneapolis. GENERAL INFORMATION: Jerry Holt/Star Tribune 7/22/2004-------Greg Bill of Minneapolis thumbs through the 9/11 commission report at Barnes and Noble in downtown Minneapolis.
(Photo By JERRY HOLT/Star Tribune via Getty Images)
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So here we are 20 years later. I saw someone ask a couple days what was your most mundane memory from 9/11. I realized I don’t have any mundane memories from that day. This isn’t to say my day was especially traumatic, especially compared to so many others. I wake up to the TV I had left on to CNN the night before (I was single at the time) and see the first tower on fire and trying to make sense of it. Not in some deep existential sense – I was half asleep. What am I seeing? Then the second tower gets hit. (I’m still not certain if I saw the second tower hit live or a replay from a few moments earlier. I think it was the former but it’s all a jumble.) Then I’m talking to my then girlfriend in her office on Capitol Hill on instant messenger who’s telling me ‘we’re next, we’re next’. Then they get a call to evacuate. My most jarring memory from that day was seeing military vehicles on the streets of Washington, DC, something that seemed simply unimaginable. I don’t remember what kind precisely, some kind of APC, I think. Not being moved from one place to another but on patrol.

In some ways that was the most jarring thing for me. After getting my initial bearings I went outside to make sense of what was happening to report on it. I was still trying to make sense of what any of it meant. I had literally just rolled out of bed, remember. Seeing military vehicles patrolling the streets of the American capital. I understood deeply and intuitively that that meant something terrible and unimaginable had happened.

In the twenty intervening years I’ve become mostly accustomed to seeing national guard troops in fatigues carrying automatic weapons in train stations. If you’re old enough to remember, this was simply unimaginable before 9/11.

The only looking back I’ve done is looking at a few of those ‘day of’ images from ground zero. The people fleeing in what looks like an eerie snowstorm but is in fact the pulverized remains of the buildings and those who didn’t escape. These remain the images that are most meaningful to me. They are ordinary people caught in a situation that is as much unimaginable as it horrifying. And it is before the overlay of the politics.

That is the key thing. Before the politics. Perhaps you share this experience. In the years that followed, as history unfolded, it was hard to hear the words “9/11” without knowing that in most cases it was an incantation to be on guard, to make war in some distant part of the globe, as a kind of bloody shirt to throw down in the face of anyone wanting to peel back the threads of fear, xenophobia and militarism that became so commonplace in the years that followed. Rudy Giuliani tried to use it to become President in 2008. He was too craven and ridiculous a figure to pull it off. But it still had a terrible power. There was the shameful “9/11 mosque” episode a decade later. The list is endless.

Certainly the events of that day were not contained within New York City or Washington, DC or Shanksville, Pennsylvania. It starts with the Gulf War. Or it begins with the Mujahideen war against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Or perhaps it goes back to FDR’s meeting with Ibn Said aboard the USS Quincy in the Suez Canal in 1945. But let’s be honest: at a certain point the invocation became something like hearing Lee Greenwood belt out his song at yet another right wing rally, a gauntlet thrown down in the face of anyone trying to rethink or unwind so much of the trajectory of the last twenty years. It was definitely used that way. Again and again and again. “Remember 9/11” for things that actually weren’t connected to 9/11.

It is perhaps fitting and a helpful reminder that it is being used that way again right now, with claims about Americans ‘held hostage’ in Afghanistan and scrutiny of ministerial appointments in the new Taliban government of Afghanistan. It’s a reason to keep running Afghanistan as a colony twenty years later. Remember 9/11.

But with these snowy images I can see the day itself, at least my memory of it. The shock, the terror, the pure incomprehensibility of it. The hopeless terror of the people on the doomed planes. The emergency doctors waiting for victims who never came. My now-wife was on her way to work in the World Trade Center complex, though not in one of the two doomed towers themselves. She saw those unknown people falling from the towers.

For myself I am trying to pry that day away from all the excesses and folly that followed.

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