Ten Years Ago

For me the events of September 11 happened in the evening.

I had just arrived in Japan to begin a year studying abroad, and had barely settled in. The next morning we were to have a vocabulary quiz. During the evening we’d been practicing our vocabulary and someone, maybe me, had needed a soda. Down in the common area, the TV had been set to CNN, which was the only real international channel we had available. The first plane had just hit, and it was enough to pique our curiosity so we suspended our studying temporarily to go downstairs and watch for a while.

Of course that was just the start of the horrible events, and the rest of the evening and much of the night were spent with a growing group of Americans watching, but not understanding. Eventually, one of the American professors who lived next door came in to try comfort us and give us that feeling that we were together, safe, and that it would all be okay. It was so surreal though that we just sat there stunned, and when we wandered off to bed we still didn’t know what to think. We didn’t know whether we would wake the next morning to more horrible news or simply the effects of sleep deprivation and confused grief.

The school was understanding, and all classes except our first Japanese class were cancelled the next day. For that, we took our quizzes and then left. That evening there were still the scheduled meetings with our new Speaking Partners, a collection of Japanese girls who did not understand why the Americans were all identifying so closely with events in a part of the country that most of us had never visited.

I had been to New York once. It was about year and a half previous while touring for choir. I’d looked out the bus windows up and up trying to see the tops of the towers when we’d driven by them. On our free day some had gone to the towers and ridden to the top, but I’d done other things thinking that the next time I came to New York that could be on my list.

So in the face of polite confusion, I asked myself why I identified with these events so closely. Of course, my brief look at the buildings didn’t entitle me to the grief that native New Yorkers felt. It was only a distant part of my world, barely touched. No one I knew had been hurt or killed. I struggled with this question repeatedly over the next few days, generally falling back to pointing at our national identity, to our universal “many into one”.

I spoke to my parents many times during that window known as “the wake of September 11”. They told me of the solidarity they were seeing. Of the warm smiles tinged with sadness shared in passing. Of the flags flying everywhere, and the people honking in bold support of memorial signs and bumper stickers. They sent me a small cloth flag, which I still keep. But it was a retelling of events at home, and I could only feel slightly disappointed and disoriented for experiencing the national mourning via phone, CNN, and blog reports.

Since then I have seen the long-term effects. So much division has grown, so many questions of who qualifies as a true American have been asked, so many fights have been started between people about patriotism instead of political positions. Often in the place of personal identity, flags and stars and purple mountains majesty are used to decorate commercials and press conferences. Many fingers point: you and you and you and you are the other, unwelcomed and excluded.

Today, I see many reviews, reports, and reminiscences from ten years ago. Again, September 11 feels like a distant tragedy, as something viewed only through a small window. I don’t feel that I have the authority to comment on the events or the aftermath directly.

So instead I look back and think about the intervening years and how things have changed. I remember the feeling that caused someone halfway around the globe to mourn alone. And I hope that in the future we can regain the universal identity that I could not truly describe, the empathy for people who are fundamentally both the same and different in places we have barely known.