How we allow the stories we tell to define us

September 11th snuck up on me this year. I knew it was coming, but living so far from NY where I rarely see US news makes it seem unreal. It’s the day after September 11th, though, that always gets me. I’m the same way with birthdays. The day of feels like it should have some huge significance, leaving me unsure how to react. The day after, though, returns us to regular life. That’s when I start to look around and ask myself “What is different here?”

It’s now thirteen years and one day since the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks. Since then, entire generations of American children have been born and grown up in a country in constant war and on perpetual alert in case of another attack. What effect must that have on a the collective psyche of a country? 

Yesterday, I found a piece I wrote three years ago on the 10th anniversary of 9/11. I thought it worth sharing.

Everyone who lived in NY then has a 9/11 Story. This is mine.

I saw it from the top of our building in Brooklyn, directly across the river where I stared in shock at two massive burn marks seared onto the side of the Twin Towers.

Sandra, our neighbor, emerged from the stairwell as we stood atop that old schoolhouse-turned-condos on Hicks Street, “The second tower just fell,” she said, explaining the cloud of grey-white dust that billowed out from the buildings and toward us. So matter of fact, it seemed, reporting what she heard from radio, just letting us know.

Then it was in quick succession: burning asbestos, sirens, people crying in the streets, singed papers and ash wafting their way from Manhattan to Brooklyn leaving by our feet a charred memo reminding Michael M to file his expense report by the end of the week. The radio told of six suspicious passengers removed from a flight at JFK. A truck thought to contain explosives was stopped near the George Washington Bridge.

We decided to go indoors as the dust cloud began to envelop us.

I can no longer believe what I believed then.

September 12, 2001, I listened to the radio to hear journalists speaking live from the scene, their media veneer stripped clean. “Oh my god. It’s falling. I can’t believe it. The building is falling.” There was panic, fear and a complete loss of control, something I had never before or since heard from the media.

I searched online looking for something to answer why this had happened. I read back issues of the New York Times, read the histories of Afghanistan, anything that could help me make sense of things. All clicks lead me to realize that nothing can explain it. Nothing can give reason to the destruction and pain we saw on the streets.

After those early days, the sheen of a well-oiled media machine glossed over the first response as Terror At the Towers and A City Under Siege filled the airways to introduce repeatedly new reports of the same information. Stories told in the first days disappeared. The six passengers on the plane became four then evaporated. I never learned what happened with the truck of explosives at the bridge, but reports of the buildings falling and man-on-the-street first hand accounts proliferated, singing the same song with pre-prepped intros, outros, b-roll yet provided nothing useful.

[pullquote align=”right” textalign=”left” width=”30%”]Finally I decided, solid and real is an illusion.[/pullquote]

I felt deceived by a media that seemed to only want to present that which would garner the most eyes and largest number of clicks, and the surreal nature of reacquainting myself to a constantly changing post-9/11 world left me grasping for something solid and real.

Until finally I decided, solid and real is an illusion.

Question everything.

Prior to 9/11, the news was all about shark attacks.  Every other day, another child, man or woman had been being mutilated by this deadliest of beady-eyed creatures.

Surely we could have found a corner of the world with a story worthy of telling. It’s not as if the Taliban popped up in Afghanistan overnight. Qaddafi wasn’t all sunshine and lollipops until a couple weeks before he was ousted. Mubarak of Egypt didn’t suddenly turn sour to be replaced by the Muslim Brotherhood.

At the time of September 11, I was teaching composition at Stern College for Women.  When classes resumed after the attacks, I revised my curriculum completely. Instead of Langston Hughes and Hemingway, we pored over news articles, examined them and tried to answer the questions people asked.

Case In Point: Bush Officials Try To Calm Fears Of Anthrax

The article itself says nothing about calming fears . Instead, it introduces Tom Ridge as the Bush administration’s new domestic security chief. His appointment, suggests the article, is meant to directly address concerns of terrorist threat in the United States as well as streamline methods of addressing those threats.

Mr Ridge describes his new role as such:

I may need some statutory authority down the line if I’m going to rearrange some of the responsibilities and give cleaner lines of responsibility to the agencies,” he said.

Mr. Ridge said, for example, that he would not be the official to decide whether the military should shoot down a commercial airliner that behaved suspiciously. “My role, if there is time, would be more as an adviser,” he said.

But, asked in the morning if he was “the boss here or are you a coordinator,” Mr. Ridge replied, “The coordinator, it’s like the conductor of an orchestra. The music doesn’t start playing until he taps the baton.

Even after three separate descriptions of Ridge’s new role, I still don’t know what he’s intended to do. What is this statutory authority? Is that what allows the Department of Homeland Security to wiretap, intercept mail and monitor our e-mails, blog writings, phone calls? It plays on our fears instead of calms them.

Fear is a fantastic motivator.

As I told my students in the weeks after 9/11, if a piece of news tweaks your fear strings, take a step back, analyze and pull apart what you’re reading and hearing. You will almost definitely find an agenda intended to capitalize on your emotional response.

That is not to say fear is useless. It protects us. Humans are more suggestible and more likely to listen to direction without question when under the influence of fear. That is a fabulous thing when you’re caught in a flaming movie theater and someone tells you to remain calm and follow the aisle to the brightly lit EXIT sign.

It is dangerous and destructive, though, when the fear stimulus is prolonged and has no directed goal. Then, fear leads to random and useless action, often rife with violence and ultimately the mind and body breaks down into disorder.

Yet I do not say no to the media.

I am critical the media for being self-interested and false. At the same time, I remain acutely aware that I am part of the media. Am I being hypocritical? I’m not immune. I am not above refining, strengthening and making some improvements to the truth with the hope of making a story more interesting to you, the readers.

Aldous Huxley writes in Brave New World Revisited that all media is propaganda. It is impossible to present any experience in its entirety or as an absolute truth. The best we can do is write what we believe to be accurate with the goal of improving what exists in the world around us.

[pullquote align=”right” textalign=”left” width=”40%”]I am not above refining, strengthening and making some improvements to the truth with the hope of making a story more interesting to you, the readers.[/pullquote]

I try to keep Huxley’s words as my guideline. I may not present absolute truth, but I do write what I believe to be true, given my own slants and prejudices. I try to think for myself. I make my best decisions with whatever information I have at the moment.

That is the best any of us can do.

When I finally saw the airplane footage.

For ten years, I didn’t see footage of the planes hitting the World Trade Center. What benefit is there to watching such an event? I didn’t choose to see them hit. It happened by mistake as I walked by a television in a store window showing tenth anniversary coverage.

My chest tightened, breathing quickened. I went directly back to my apartment that no longer exists in a life that only lives in photos and memory. I was there again in all that pain, unknowing and indecision.

Again, I felt the fear vividly. I re-experienced the wild look in the eyes of people around me, when they weren’t filled with tears, and then recognized the same wildness in my own face in the mirror. I thought I’d moved past these feelings. The media brought me back.

For days, I closed my eyes to see those few seconds of footage repeating in my head on loop, watching helplessly as the flight speeds up in those last moments, as if the pilot relished the thought of all the damage he’d cause. Or was that my imagination?

The mind is powerful. It is up to us how we choose to use that power.

Pre-9-11, I let that belly twinge of emotion guide too many of my choices. Post, I looked at my life and said “What am I waiting for?” There were so many things I’d always wanted but never did because of fear, obligation, not wanting to do the wrong thing.

It’s easier to give up fear when you live through an event like 9/11, because it shows without a doubt that staying still is no more secure than moving. Without fear, I am able to put aside the you-shoulds and what-ifs and finally live my life.

Today is the day the new normal began.

My most vivid memory of September 11, 2001 is watching a flock of pigeons flying their rounds from my side of the river to the other, circling the smoke as if it wasn’t there.

It was a beautiful day that day, a perfect day. The sky rang clear, not a cloud, and the sun shone brightly. It’s the kind of day when moms take their babies to the park to play and people sit outside chatting with their neighbors over a coffee.

I watched the pigeons gliding back and forth, avoiding the toxic smoke, continuing as if nothing unusual had occurred. How could the day be such so gorgeous when something so ugly had happened? How can the sun shine when the world is falling apart?

And then, here we are, ten years later.

Now, it’s three years after the ten years, and I feel I have been so fortunate. I did not lose like many lost. I moved away and no longer see daily reminders. I am not there to take part in memorials. When I wonder what here is different, I look at myself and say, it is me. I have changed.