August 26, 2001 was a pleasant, breezy Sunday. I was literally 16 going on 17 (my birthday is September 7), happily driving my new blue Jeep to caddy at Canterbury Golf Club in suburban Cleveland. Couples and kids of all ages were scurrying about, laughing and unwinding in the late summer sun, getting their last rounds in before the fall. The memory of this moment seems so clean, like everything was purer.
Two weeks later on Tuesday, September 11, Michael Jackson’s “You Rocked My World” brought me out of a dream and into the day. In the weight room for first period gym class, someone asked if we could hit the showers, and Coach Dugan responded, “not yet, it’s only 8:45!” (first period ended at 9:20). None of us had any idea that at that very moment, some of the first lives of this terrible day were being extinguished, and events were set in motion that would dramatically alter the course of history (first plane hit the north tower at 8:46am EST; second hit south tower 17 minutes later). Somewhere in between lifting a free weight and scrubbing behind my ears, the world changed forever.
We were standing on the precipice of the world we knew, and the new reality we’d have to accept—but there were no cell phones then, no chimes to alert me of the worsening crisis. I was in second period study hall with Faith and Andy, sitting around a small table in Gilmour’s Student Center, laughing and pretending to study. Around 9:30am our Dean of Students entered the room slowly and joylessly, looking like she was in the middle of a supernatural possession. “Two planes have just hit the World Trade Center towers in New York City, around the 90th floor,” she said. “It was a suicide attack is all we know.” I haven’t thought about that Dean or those classmates in years, but wherever we go, we’ll always remember being together when it all started.
My parents had just been in New York that previous weekend, staying across the river in New Jersey, with the lower Manhattan skyline as a backdrop (we would soon see my mom’s many pictures of the towers, standing erect and untouched, as if unknowingly posing for their grand finale). When our Dean delivered us this now infamous news, I envisioned a small plane with a zealous, solo occupant. I knew nothing of international terrorism.
At 9:45am, we joined a larger group in the library, trying to make sense of the grainy images that looked more like a Roland Emmerich film than real life: violent, chaotic flames engulfing the windows, the silhouette of the skyscrapers from afar, looking like cigarettes standing upright and releasing their plumes in a sinister trail across the sky.
(Left: WTC on 9/11/01; Right: Kevin McCallister atop WTC 2 in Home Alone: Lost in New York)
Trying to get the Roland Emmerich reality out of my head, I thought of the movie Home Alone 2: Lost in New York — when protagonist Kevin peered over the edge of the WTC observation deck, snapping pictures with his camera, beholding the beauty of New York from the air. That joy and awe seemed so far away on this day, as every camera in the world trained inward instead, observing and analyzing the disastrous spectacle unfolding in real-time. On February 26, 1993, an explosion rocked the basement of the World Trade Center; 8 ½ years later, it was up high where no water line could reach. We were powerless this time. Somehow we’d all been played. It was a strange and unwelcome feeling.
I was convinced this was the extent of it. The fires would dwindle, water would drip from the hollowed out holes, and we’d cover them proudly with American flags and rebuild. That’s what we’d always done.
Even at 9:59am, as I watched the south tower pancake down, floor by floor, I still refused to believe or accept what I was seeing. “It looks like some kind of collapse, but it’s probably just a piece of the building falling away,” I told myself. On the bottom of the screen came a newsflash: “One Tower Collapsed.” It seemed so casual and objective, the way it landed, when an exclamation point (“One Tower Collapsed!”) certainly felt more appropriate. I was in deep denial. The other tower can still be saved. It will be just like in the movie Back to the Future, when Marty returns to an altered 1985 and finds “Twin Pines Mall” renamed “Lone Pine Mall.” The optimism that cradled me, holding me in the palm of its hand, was revealing its fissures. I felt myself slipping through. The second tower followed its twin, a half hour later, at 10:28.
Two decades later, and with plenty of hindsight, I now better understand the dark and malicious consequences of religious extremism. The arrogance of misguided colonialism or cultural imperialism. I don’t think we deserved what we got, but the origins of the rage and the complexity of the human experience that caused it are clearer — and in a way, this helps me make more sense of 9/11 (if that’s even possible).
As a privileged, 17-year-old American, watching the towers fall was traumatic, pivotal, and transformative. Having only seen New York via the lens of a Hollywood screenwriter, they represented the bold spirit of this thriving, sexy metropolis — one that held such mystery and allure. The WTC was the proud gateway to this urban Camelot; I looked forward to seeing each tower, one right next to the other, welcoming their arrival like an old friend. They were in ads, movies, and were establishing shots for my favorite sitcoms. I never knew them, hadn’t been inside them once, yet somehow I knew them intimately. Their presence ultimately transcended Gotham, becoming a mighty symbol of western culture. A powerful culture in which I was burgeoning. In this world, buildings like those were the very definition of aspiration, success, wealth, and happiness. Monolithic yet magical; entire cities unto themselves. To see them pulverized into dust like they were silly toys for some giant in the sky, these thirty-year-old titans crumbling into nothing in a single morning, was unthinkable. Now that it was thinkable, I had to reexamine and reorient my views on myself, the culture, and the world.
More importantly were the human stories so signature to this tragedy. Stories I wasn’t always making space for, selfishly, because I was trying to find my own bearings in this new reality where awful shit like could hit so close to home. If one person’s death brings grief to a family, a spouse, a friend, then the ripple effect of 3,000 deaths was soul-crushing. Eating lunch that day in the school cafeteria (they served chicken tenders) felt somehow like a betrayal — how could I carry on in “normalcy,” talking with my friends and chewing my chicken, as if nothing had happened? Classes did ground to a halt though, because all anyone could talk about were the pictures. The harrowing and emotional testimonials. The subsequent news of the Pentagon and the fourth plane. Relentless playbacks of the impact and the collapse. The inevitable “where were you when…?” conversations. The entire world had crossed over the event horizon and could never go back. I began to nostalgically reflect on the year 2000, and the halcyon spring and summer of 2001, as an idealistic and happy period that passed too quickly.
As a country, we were horrified, heartbroken, and enraged — these 102 minutes so deeply seared into us that nothing even seemed real, except our own fragile humanity. For a brief period we were kinder, gentler, more grateful, and more united than ever. But as we moved further away from that day, and further into a misguided foreign policy largely shaped by those 102 minutes, we’d open a Pandora’s box of social, cultural, and political turmoil. Two failed wars was just the tip of the iceberg.
Far off history might describe this moment as the "beginning of the end of the great American Pax Romana." It was one hell of a first domino tip. Yet it's the subtly persistent memory of it that stings to the core, the acknowledgment that such a thing is real. Sometimes I forget about it, but am then inevitably reminded, if only briefly, the memories taunting me like a harsh reality check on loop—also calling my attention to the many "nine elevens" before and since all over the world (7/7 in London, 26/11 in India, 11/13 in Paris, etc.).
One day I might have to teach a child about 9/11, shattering their illusions that all humans are good and trustworthy. Although it's a necessary lesson, it will break my heart to have to break their heart. Yet learning and remembering the history is important. Perhaps the only "good" things to come out of this event are the lessons we can learn from its origins—and its legacy.