Where Were You on Sept. 11?
By john pattison
September 11, 2009
Editor's note: To commemorate the 8th anniversary of September 11th, we turned to John Pattison and the Burnside Writers' Collective to bring their thoughtful reflections on that world-altering day. We invite you to read their stories, but don't stop there—share your own story with us. Where were you? What have you learned? How have you changed, or not change? Let us know in the comments below as we remember 9/11.
My own connection to September 11 and its aftermath is mostly secondhand, my experience mediated through the experiences of others.
I was on an overnight train from Chico, California to Salem, Oregon. Somewhere near the state line, just after six a.m. Pacific time, the conductor announced that a plane had flown into the north tower of the World Trade Center and that tens of thousands of people work in the World Trade Center every day. Then nothing. Radio silence for eight hours. Our train slowed to a crawl (for security reasons, we later learned) and many of the other passengers went back to chatting, gossiping, sleeping, reading trashy novels, which made me furious—didn’t they know the world was ending?
In the coming weeks I began to collect answers to the inescapable question of my generation: where were you? Maybe because I spent so many hours on the train without access to information, I consumed vast amounts of news coverage, and let myself be consumed by it. I scoured newspapers and magazines for personal testimonies. The television stayed on for days at a time. To turn off the set, or unplug the internet, was to somehow break solidarity with those who were experiencing the tragedy firsthand: the rescuers and the mourners.
I fell asleep on the couch by the blue light of the TV screen. If anything momentous happened, I would be the first to know. I woke up at three when the home shopping network took over the local CBS affiliate, and I watched with some measure of hope as the insomniacs and the senior citizens kept the wheels of capitalism turning late into the night.
I considered joining the military for a while so I could fight in Afghanistan, but I let other people do that too. Later I was arrested in front of the White House in a protest against the Iraq war. Even this was so scripted—the protest organizers had worked out the details in advance with the police—that it felt like a performance, rather than a real event.
Reflecting on the September 11 terrorist attacks, I remember it's the nature of compassion (which derives from a Latin word meaning “suffer with”) to take personally the pain of another, to make a secondhand experience firsthand, to whatever extent possible.
On 9/11, I was on Fort Bragg, training up for a deployment to Bosnia. Bosnia was the last mission that felt like peacekeeping, like the '90s. We were in a briefing when our 1st Sergeant told us a plane hit the World Trade Center. I pictured a Piper Cub. The guy next to me thought it was fake, because the Army occasionally plays stupid mind games like that, and they wouldn't let us watch TV. The news got worse, but we didn't see footage until lunch. It looked like a Michael Bay film. I was sad, but I never got angry. Partly, that was out of self interest. I've never been to New York, and I didn't lose anyone that day. Mostly, it was because everyone around me was angry enough. It was that sense of vengeance that cost the lives of my friends years later, volunteers or no. In Bosnia, more than one Serb sympathized with us over the attacks. "We know how those Muslims are," they'd say, as if genocide was now justified, as if we finally knew unslaked revenge. But war will never be true justice, and revenge means playing a victim when we're all guilty.
Even now, I still feel like I should have been hit by the events of September 11th harder, like my grief isn't quite deep enough for what actually happened.
I've never been to New York City or Washington D.C., I only knew fifth-hand someone who died that day and living in Los Angeles at the time, the entire event played out for me on television, like a bad miniseries, with a series of hassles (trying to pick someone up at the LA airport a week later was particularly inconvenient) as the personal aftermath.Now, after the movie adaptations have left the theater and we've moved on to trying to clean up the mess we made in Iraq and Afghanistan trying to get some sort of revenge, what remains? Glenn Beck throws around something about the spirit of 9/12 when everyone was on Team America, but that mentality got us into a different sort of trouble.
Personally, is my life much different? I try to be appreciative of how quickly life can change and think about how the manifestations of my beliefs might affect the world around me both near and far. Will that keep another event like 9/11 from happening again? Probably not.
Campus was quiet that morning. It took them a while to cancel classes, and I sat for an art history test unaware of what was happening. By afternoon, the skies had emptied, and on everything there settled a confused and uncertain sadness. The world had changed and no one knew why.
As the bombs began to fall on Baghdad eighteen months later, I sat in a friend’s living room and toasted the military might of the United States. We were witnessing, so I believed at the time, the opening of another front in the War on Terror—a war “they” started. Memory of that night still fills me with shame.
America is not a Christian nation, and it is unreasonable to hold it to the Christian principles of turning the other cheek and loving one’s enemy. But eight years and two wars later, I wonder what the world would be like if, instead of satisfying our righteous desire for vengeance, we had mourned, shown mercy and made peace.
David A. Zimmerman:
I went for a walk. Such is not my custom, but it was such a beautiful Chicago morning I hated to waste it. I strolled through the neighborhood park enjoying the idyllic suburban environment. I found the shell of a walnut, chewed unwittingly by some rodent into the shape of a peace sign. I pocketed the shell and made my way back home.
I didn’t want my morning commute to be sullied with bad news, so I drove to work with Paul McCartney’s “Silly Love Songs” on repeat, and arrived at my desk to face the tasks at hand. Then my wife called, morning blurriness in her voice.
“Did you hear about a plane flying into the World Trade Center?”
I searched the Internet. Word made its way through the office. We gathered in the conference room to pray.
“Silly Love Songs” is not a bad song, but it’s no match for September 11th. Hanging on my wall instead, in cruciform, are the lyrics to a much more suitable tribute: “Cry Like an Angel” by Shawn Colvin. “The streets of my town are not what they were ... May we all find salvation in professions that heal.”
John Pattison is the Deputy Editor for the Burnside Writers Collective. A regular RELEVANT contributor, John’s Summer Reading Guide appeared in the May/June issue of the magazine. Jordan Green is the Editor of the Burnside Writers Collective. Dan Gibson is a writer/researcher living in Tucson, Arizona. David Johnson is the Books Editor for the Burnside Writers Collective and a regular contributor to RELEVANT magazine. David A. Zimmerman is the author of Deliver Us from Me-Ville (David C. Cook) and Comic Book Character (IVP).