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This 9/11, I feel old

September 11, 2009

Eight years ago? Really?

The Washington Post’s front-page story on the anniversary of September 11, 2001 is about kids who are learning about the attacks as history. With the U.S. still fighting two wars that directly (Afghanistan) or through slight of hand (Iraq) came out of 9/11, I wonder how much historical perspective it’s possible to have on those events yet.

The article also makes me feel old. I now have two children of my own who will also someday learn about as history this event that was such a turning point in my young adulthood. I don’t think I’m alone in feeling that something profound changed on 9/11 about the way I thought about safety, security, patriotism, terrorism, family… the list goes on. If you put enough 20- and 30-somethings in a room together and leave them to talk long enough, eventually the conversation will turn to “where were you?”

So, where was I? I had just begun my second year as an intern here at FCNL. I had a meeting downtown on providing health care for immigrants. I was a little early, so I stopped in Borders at 18th and L Streets, NW to browse the magazines. I was wearing a red and white striped jumper. I went to the meeting, which started at 9 am. People had started hearing things about a plane crash in New York, but nobody knew yet that it was an attack.  People kept leaving the meeting to go see what was happening on a small television in an office down the hall. Then, the plane hit the Pentagon. Suddenly, rumors were flying – there was a bomb at the White House and other government buildings. The Metro was shut down. Nobody knew what was going on. The meeting was called off. I tried calling the office, but everyone had already evacuated.

Had I been thinking clearly, I would have tried to reach friends who lived in the city and gone to her place. I could easily have walked there. But all I could think of was, I have to get home, even though “home” at the time was just a mile from the Pentagon in a huge high rise off Columbia Pike. I figured that even if the Metro was running there was no way I could get home on it, so I stood on the corner and joined the crowd trying to get a cab, most of which weren’t stopping even if they were empty.

I wound up sharing a cab with someone who lived in Alexandria and who happened to work for a military contractor. The 395 bridge by the Pentagon was closed, so we had to drive all the way around the Beltway the other way to get home. One surreal memory stands out in a day of surreal memories: as we drove the cab driver and my fellow passengar kept up a running conversation about what kinds of military aircraft we were seeing in the sky.

Several hours later, I did get home. Aside from the smoke rising in the distance from the Pentagon, my street looked amazingly normal and peaceful. I didn’t feel either. It was too early to know what had happened, for facts to crowd out emotions. I was just scared.

The list of brave things done by ordinary people on 9/11 and its aftermath is long. I want to add one item that is often overlooked. The bravest thing that I, and many people around me, did on the 12th of September, 2001, was get up and go to work. We left our houses and apartments–their safety might have been illusionary, but it still felt safe–and went out into a world where suddenly it seemed possible to be killed in horrible ways, by random chance, just for going about your daily life. This is not a unique feeling in the world, but growing up in the United States, as an upper-middle-class child of relative privilege, it was a new feeling to me.

Over the days, weeks, months, and years that followed, I’ve let go of a lot of that fear. I don’t think it’s possible to be that scared all the time, even if it’s warranted, and still be able to function in society. While I’m glad that I don’t think twice about getting on the train to go to work in the morning, I do think the fear and the feelings of vulnerability had some positive effects that have also faded somewhat over time. I remember feeling that I shouldn’t put off that call to my parents or that trip to see my grandmother. I felt that what I did on any particular day was important, that even playing a small part in keeping something like this from happening again made a job worth doing. For some people my age, that meant wanting to join the military and defend the country. For me, it brought me closer in to a Quaker community and, eventually, helped lead me back to FCNL as a permanent staff member, trying to change U.S. policy to promote peace in this country and the world.

The kids who are learning about 9/11 today out of a history book are mainly learning the facts. The harder thing to learn is the emotional effect of an event like that. I wouldn’t wish this kind of abrupt, life-changing horror on anyone, or any generation. At the same time,  that experience has had a huge impact on who I am and where I am today and has motivated me to be more intentional about my life and clearer with myself about my values.

  1. Christine permalink
    September 11, 2009 1:10 pm

    Beautiful post, Alicia. You’re right, it was such a strange feeling the way that formerly mundane activities (going to work, riding a plane, joining a large crowd on the street) suddenly gained this sense of bravery and vulnerability. On Sept 11, 2001 I was in India and I watched the attacks on TV with one of my housemates who had immigrated to the US from Northern Ireland. At one point, I remember her saying “this is awful. I moved to the US to get away from this. Now, we’re going to have fear with us everywhere we go, like I did in Northern Ireland.” I, too, have let go of most of that fear in the last 8 years, but I can’t argue that we did lose a certain innocence and sense of invincibility.

    Thanks for sharing your reflections with us.

  2. Tommy permalink
    September 11, 2009 4:53 pm

    I have always been troubled by the lack of current history in most high school curriculum. So much time is dedicated to the founding and early divisions within the United States of America, but little, if any time, is spent teaching and discussing the more recent history that shapes are society as a whole. The 1968 Democratic Convention, the Watergate break-in, and the Iran-Contra scandal ever never once mentioned in my K-12 education.

    The only post World War 2 war ever discussed in school was Operation Desert Storm and that was in the second grade. It was a cursory lesson on where Iraq is, and then we made yellow ribbons out of construction paper. It was 11 years later that I learned anything about the origins of that conflict.

    I am glad the events of 9/11/2001 are being taught in schools. My hope is that it is not taught within a vacuum. The historic path to 9/11 can be easily traced back to the 1940’s and 50’s, and the story doesn’t stop on September 12th, 2001. High school students need more than the who, the what, and the when. We as a nation need to better articulate the why’s. Why did they fly planes into buildings? Why did we invade Afghanistan and Iraq? Why are people still dying?

    I doubt this is where the lesson plan actually leads.

    I just hope the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina gets a proper curriculum in 4 years time.

  3. Tracy permalink
    September 11, 2009 7:10 pm

    I thought of FCNL staff in the days after 9/11 because of the office being right across from the Senate. As it was, I felt uneasy at Peace Action, located two blocks from the White House and across the street from the World Bank. In the days and weeks after the attacks, all our usual legislative meetings became spiritual homes. I was deeply grateful to be surrounded by people committed to peace during that time. I also remember how hard it was to have our work go from difficult to seemingly impossible, but I will always appreciate the many people who stayed with us and supported our work in DC during a long, hard time. We still have a lot to do, but we’ve come a long way from that awful day.

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