10 years ago, I was up early finishing math homework at the desk in my dorm. It was due for that morning’s class, and I had procrastinated during the weekend. It was my junior year of college, and I didn’t know that classes would be canceled that day.
I had two roommates in an apartment-like dorm. The one I shared a bunk with was still asleep, but the one who was usually secluded in his room came out and told me to turn on the TV news.
I watched a building with smoke billowing out of it, and there was some speculation that a plane had accidentally flown into it. No one knew if it was an attack. Shortly after, I saw live reports of the second plane flying into the World Trade Center buildings, and it was clear that it was no accident.
Our neighbors across the hall knocked on the door, and we all watched the news in silence. Footage of the planes slamming into the buildings repeated, and news anchors provided what info they could, even though no one knew what was happening. Occasionally someone would say something, but we were otherwise numbed and unable to speak.
My other roommate appeared and asked what was going on since so many people were in our living room. I remember feeling a bit guilty that I didn’t think to go wake him up. He did a literal double-take when he saw the TV footage.
People were reported to be jumping out of the burning towers, which eventually fell as well. The Pentagon was attacked, and we heard the relatively good news that one plane crashed in a field instead of hitting its intended target. One neighbor said it looked like the fall of Rome, and I remember being bothered by the statement at the time but in a way I couldn’t put to words. It was all horrific, and the footage was on constant repeat.
I remember my mother called me, which was difficult since the phone lines were tied up. Everyone was calling everyone, it seemed. “Where are you?”
“I’m at school.”
“What are you doing there?!”
“Mom, I live here.”
Even people who live in the Chicagoland area sometimes think that all of Chicago is Downtown Chicago. Even though I was miles away from downtown, my mother probably thought I was hanging out near the Sears Tower, which I’m sure everyone thought would be a potential target.
I knew of only one person in New York, a prominent QBasic game reviewer, and I was relieved to find out he was safe.
The school set up some TVs in the cafeteria, and I spent part of the day with friends there. Eventually I realized that I was getting fatigued by the news on repeat. It was a lot to process and take in. There was so much death and destruction, and while I was aware that people might be used to such attacks in some places in the world, it was the first time I can remember seeing such an attack so close to home.
I recall the face of Osama bin Laden appearing on TV, with people speculating about his involvement, and I remember thinking that we don’t know who did it, and yet now everyone in America who looks remotely Middle Eastern will be suspected of being a terrorist. I was reminded of “The Siege,” a movie starring Denzel Washington, Bruce Willis, and Annette Bening. There is a scene shortly after a terrorist attack with talk radio personalities arguing that we should deport all Arabs, since we “know” they’re the ones responsible. Everyone was afraid of everyone, and I worried it was going to happen in real life.
One Muslim friend of mine reported being on a crowded El that week and wondering why no one would take the seat next to her, until she realized it was because everyone was afraid of her. If you knew her, you’d realize how laughably absurd it is to be afraid to sit next to her, and yet that was the climate of fear the country was in.
I remember going to class downtown the next day, and while waiting for the elevator, a friend asked me if I was nervous. I said I wasn’t, because I figured the day after an attack is probably the safest time to be anywhere. In the days that followed, though, I was incredibly aware of the fact that the Sears Tower was mere blocks away, and I couldn’t help but imagine how terrible it would be to stand where I was and witness it burn and fall.
There was a lot of ugliness on September 11th, and at times you couldn’t believe that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself the way the media and politicians went on, but I remember some things that weren’t horrible. While I didn’t know anyone who had died in the attacks, and I don’t think I knew anyone who knew anyone either, there was a lot of goodwill and love. I remember a number of us were being turned away when trying to donate blood because so many people were trying to help. It seemed every other person had shirts proclaiming that they hearted New York. Everyone was a New Yorker. The outpouring of support from the nations of the world included statements like “We are all Americans.”
With so much support, goodwill, and strength, how could the attacks possibly compare to the fall of Rome?
In the years to follow, I remember recounting the day with friends every so often, and I realized that “Where were you on September 11th?” was going to be a question along the lines of “Where were you when John F. Kennedy was killed?” A friend said his alarm woke him up because a radio personality was saying that if you’re just tuning in, you’re waking up in World War III, which he initially dismissed as some alarmist version of what might likely be a relatively benign event. Another was interviewing for a job and saw the flags at half mast upon arrival.
In all of these stories, it seems as if time stands still for the person when he/she realizes what happened. Priorities become reevaluated. And there is always this feeling that it was an unreal experience, as if this remembering was not of the past but of a bizarre dream.
I wish I had a good moral or point to tell. Maybe if I was a better writer, I could turn my story into a point about the dangers of fear, about how terrorism is about terror, and when we allow ourselves to be afraid, the terrorists have done their job. Maybe I could even throw in the well-known quote by Benjamin Franklin on those who deserve neither liberty nor safety. But in the end, it was a horrible morning involving a lot of suffering and death and destruction, and this article was merely my memory of it.