We pretend 9/11 was a shared experience

September 6, 2021

What I wish more Americans consciously understood about 9/11 is that it was not a shared experience. Most of us acknowledge that people who were in Lower Manhattan and in or near the Pentagon were affected differently than people who were in Cheyenne that day. However, I want to highlight how our full identities — geographical location, age, education, parents’ background, and more — contributed to shaping realities that exploded into kaleidoscopic webs of memories and narratives.

On the day itself, I saw diverging experiences among my high school classmates. The Class of 2001 from my Catholic prep school in Northern California had dispersed across the country, virtually all of us still in school. We were young men and women, plurality white, the rest a variety of Asian and Latino backgrounds plus a few Black students. A significant minority identified as conservative at the time, but most would say they were liberal, and perhaps a handful would claim leftism or straight up socialism instead of liberalism. We were attending community colleges, small liberal arts schools, big brand-name private schools in big cities, military academies, flagship state schools, state schools people outside California have never heard of, and more.

Amid the chaos and the fear, I remember that my classmates started an email thread to track down everyone in New York, DC, and Boston, and try to confirm they were safe. I don’t have that thread anymore, but I remember it started out earnest and straightforward, but by the end of the day, after we had, indeed, confirmed all of our classmates in those cities were safe, we began arguing. Someone suggested he would stockpile guns. Someone told that person to stop being a prick. Another person wrote about unleashing military hell on whoever did this. Someone else said that was incredibly cruel. Et cetera. Amidst it all, because of a typo, some poor random guy who wasn’t in our class had been included in the thread and begged us to remove him.

I was at New York University. I’ve written about the sheer denial I felt that day, and how my primary reactions were sadness and numbness. I wasn’t that afraid — which, in retrospect, surprises me because I’ve always been an anxious flyer and terrified of death, generally. On that day, and in the weeks following, I wasn’t afraid to take the subway, or be in Manhattan, or anything like that. Again, I was sad that so many people had died and sad that my friends were so traumatized.

Because of how the broader national narrative about 9/11 developed, with fear as the primary emotion, I was hyperaware that my reaction would be read as an outlier, so kept mostly to myself. I often thought about my high school classmates, especially the ones who had begun bickering about 9/11 on 9/11, and eventually realized the vast majority of them had experienced the attacks in a fundamentally different way than I had. For instance, the ones in California likely woke up to news of the attacks, and then watched clips on TV. Perhaps they received phone calls from friends or family. I, on the other hand, didn’t call my parents and girlfriend until after I had gone to morning class, had the class stopped because of the attacks, stopped in Washington Square along with a gathered crowd to stare at the two towers on fire, and then hustled back to my dorm.

But on a more specific level, my experience as an NYU freshman from California was different from the experience of my roommate, an NYU freshman from California, who woke up that morning, went to our window to look out at the sunny day, watched the first plane slam into the World Trade Center, and then remained at the window, watching, until he saw the second plane’s impact. It’s unanswerable, but I suspect my numbness and sadness would have been something else if I’d seen any of that live, with my own two eyes, rather than mediated by television, just as I suspect my high school classmates who hadn’t yet started classes at their campuses and were mostly at home would have reacted differently if they weren’t so separated by geography and weren’t with their families.

Sometimes, I think about how, because I was in my downtown Manhattan dorm room, alternating between watching CNN with the people gathered in my room and sticking my head out the window to look at the people hugging each other on the sidewalk and the burning buildings to the south, I barely registered that the Pentagon had been hit by an airplane, too. Memory is a weird thing in that it’s constructed from the past and the present and the imaginary, so when I’ve rewatched the CNN coverage from that day I’m shocked by how clear they were that the Pentagon had been attacked. Surely, I saw that footage and heard what Aaron Brown said, and of course I know that’s what happened, but my core memories of the day are exclusively focused on New York and the group of new friends who cared for each other and helped each other begin processing how our world had changed.

And all of that is before we get to how my political understandings and frameworks colored my reaction to that day. How, because I had a heightened awareness that my Filipina mother is an immigrant, and that my paternal grandfather was an immigrant, I immediately picked up on rising xenophobia. How I found confirmation in every new development for my prior belief that George W. Bush wasn’t quite an idiot, but that he was definitely not up for the job of president. How the different levels of shock experienced by every other kid in my dorm must have affected me.

This is not a plea for relativism to trump everything else. The people who called for blood after 9/11 still have to answer for themselves. The people who became anti-Muslim after 9/11 can fuck off.

But I think we might get closer to a proper accounting and a more honest appraisal of what’s happened the past 20 years if we let go of the notion that the 9/11 terrorist attacks were a shared experience. Pretending we all saw the same thing is just another piece of bullshit impeding our nation’s ability to come to terms with what we do to the rest of the world and why.

(Photo: "New York (1997)" by Hunter Desportes. Used under CC BY 2.0 license.)