On September 11, 2001, I was two weeks into high school, a month away from turning fourteen. I was getting ready for school in my bedroom when it happened. My bedroom still had two beds in it, because my little brother had only recently stopped coming to sleep in it when he got scared in the middle of the night. He was two weeks into kindergarten, a month away from turning six.
I had my clock radio on, listening to the terrible morning show on my favorite terrible top-40 station. Gene and Julie, a married couple, stopped their regularly scheduled bickering about how women should pluck their eyebrows or who took longer in the bathroom to report that a plane had hit the World Trade Center. I yelled for my sister to turn on her radio, and my mom too. (My sister says she already had her radio on and thought I was yelling at her to turn it off because it was bugging me, which sounds like something I would probably still do to her.) My dad was on a business trip in China, where he would be stranded for the next several days while airports stayed shut down.
I knew what the World Trade Center was because I had been there just a few weeks earlier on vacation with my dad. I hadn’t actually gone inside the towers themselves, but I did go to the Winter Garden Atrium nearby, which was severely damaged in the attacks and took a year to rebuild. It was mildly frightening, the idea that I might have been hurt or killed if the timing had been slightly different, but it wasn’t that frightening. I was fourteen (almost), and because I still very much regarded myself as the center of the universe, it made sense to me that I would be almost hurt or killed but would escape unscathed. That seemed like the kind of thing that happened to a protagonist, and I was the protagonist of the world, as far as I was concerned.
I had Spanish first period. We turned the TV on and watched the news. My current boyfriend was in that same class (he wasn’t my boyfriend at the time), and he says what he remembers is everyone trying to do the arithmetic of acquaintance: Do I know anyone who lives in New York? Do I know anyone flying home from New York? We were in California, whole time zones away from the horror, but the hijacked planes were all supposed to be headed to Los Angeles.
There was one girl in the class who started crying—not just sniffling, but full-on ugly-crying, her face red as a bell pepper. She was a sophomore, which made her seem almost like an adult to me because I was not even quite fourteen. I think it would’ve been too early for her to have found out she’d lost a loved one, so that wasn’t why she was crying. She just felt it very keenly, empathized with the people jumping out of the towers so they wouldn’t burn to death. No one else cried.
What we kept saying to each other over and over was that it was like something out of the Will Smith movie Independence Day, in which aliens invade Earth. That was how random it felt, how disconnected from world events. To us, there were no events leading up to the attacks, no causal chain threading through history that would produce this outcome. It wasn’t like the Tokyo subway attacks or the Oklahoma City bombings or even Pearl Harbor. It was just aliens coming down from the sky to wreak havoc for unfathomable reasons.
I remember that afterward, I wanted revenge. I remember that I bought (or rather, had my mom buy for me) a T-shirt with stars and stripes on it. I guess that’s how a lot of people reacted—vengeance and patriotic merchandise—but they were adults and I was not yet fourteen. I remember that was when I started swearing, because it just made sense to use cuss words now that I was in high school and it was possible for terrorists to crash a plane into the Pentagon.
If you ask my parents about that day, what comes through is the mind-twisting shock they felt. They knew something like this could happen, but not in America. They knew something like this could happen, but not on such a massive scale, not with airplanes and towers. They knew people in some countries claimed not to like Americans, but they didn’t realize it could matter.
Whereas I was so young I didn’t know what things could happen and what things couldn’t. I was not even quite fourteen. It was shocking, but menstruation and sex were also shocking, and people were apparently doing those things all the time. We’d learned about the Holocaust in school, a tragedy on an even more massive scale, so it made sense that something like this could happen too.
My parents felt their worlds shake much more than I did, but I think that when the shaking was done, their view of the world landed more or less back in the same place. For them, before 9/11, America was good, and there were bad guys out there, and things made sense that way. That was still true after 9/11. I, on the other hand, came into political consciousness taking for granted that anti-Americanism was a very real and powerful perspective, so that as I learned about history and politics, it became impossible to believe in patriotism or good guys vs. bad guys.
My little brother had just started kindergarten in September of 2001. He was a month away from his sixth birthday and barely even remembers the day. The teacher told the class something bad had happened. That was all. No shock at all, barely even a mild surprise. For him, there is no “post-9/11 world”—that’s just the world. 9/11 is a basic fact of life for him, hardly any different from the World Wars or Vietnam. We’ve been at war in the Middle East for virtually all of his conscious life. The strangest part is that enough time has passed that he’s now old enough to vote, old enough to get drafted. He’s a few weeks into his freshman year of college, a month away from turning nineteen.