I’m a little hesitant to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks for Where Peter Is. But I volunteered to do so, and so here I am. As a member of one of the youngest cohorts that actually remembers it, I have a personal 9/11 story but I’m not sure how interesting it is.
I was in the third grade and living in Southern Vermont with my mother at the time. My grandparents lived in New York City’s New Jersey-side suburbs. There’s a picture of me with my parents in 1999 or so, visiting the Statue of Liberty, and you can see the World Trade Center in the background; it was my first time in or near the city. The second time was earlier in 2001, I think, when I went to a baseball game at Shea Stadium.
September 11 was already a different kind of day for me. My mother usually drove me to school on her way to work at a social services office, but that morning I took the school bus because she had a coffee date with a friend. The planes hit the Twin Towers while she was at the café and while I was in class, where I was probably sniping at a teacher’s aide I didn’t like or petting the dog that my teacher was allowed to bring to school with her because he needed medication at inconvenient times of day. That afternoon, I walked home from the bus stop on a beautiful late-summer day, past cow pastures and stands of maple trees, and went into the kitchen, where my mother, somber, asked me if I knew what terrorism was.
This being Southern Vermont in the early 2000s, my mother and I had a lot of ultra-left friends and acquaintances who would occasionally make positive reference to ecoterrorism of the Sea Shepherd/Earth Liberation Front variety. This put my mother in what was surely the agonizing position of clarifying to me that this was a very bad kind of terrorism, a kind that had killed thousands of people and gravely endangered many more.
In the interest of complete honesty, I should mention that my mother remembers this conversation very differently; she remembers having waited several days to tell me what had happened, which was still possible in the early days of the internet. But this is how I remember it.
The next day, my teacher had us do some sort of share-our-feelings circle. I can’t remember for the life of me what any of us said. What was there to say? We were eight years old.
I remember when Bush had a 90% approval rating right after the attack. My mother was among the one in ten Americans who still thought he was doing a bad job. Most of the people I knew, I think even including my mother, tentatively supported going into Afghanistan initially but opposed Iraq two years later from the beginning. By then we had moved to New Jersey, relatively close to my grandparents. They were affluent Catholic neoconservative Bush supporters of the “JP2 Catholic” variety so common then. Some of my very earliest lessons in learning to live with political, ideological, and moral difference came from politely sitting and listening to them talking about what was going on in the world.
I never understood, during the yellow-ribbon period between roughly 2003 and 2008, why “supporting the troops” entailed wanting more of them in active combat zones. It seemed to me that putting people in harm’s way was a pretty bad way of showing support for them. When I realized in recent years that there were combat troops in Afghanistan who weren’t even born on 9/11, I began to support unilateral withdrawal (although I still think it should have been executed better).
Now I’m teaching an English and civics class for recently-arrived refugees, some of them Afghan women, but that’s a story for another time. I think that the most lasting legacy of 9/11 in my own life is the conviction that we Americans have fates that have become intertwined with those of people in some very tragic, benighted parts of the world, and that we thus bear certain responsibilities to them.
I’ve always found it interesting that the Catechism presents the duty of a country to welcome refugees and immigrants (to the extent that it’s able, anyway); not in modern ideological or political terms, but in terms of the ancient rights of guests. It’s not that modern human political communities or demographic populations have rights over one another; it’s simply that a host has obligations to protect guests under his or her roof. If the long-term legacy of 9/11 is simply destabilization and regional violence, at least the world might learn that from it, if we let ourselves.
There are obviously millions and millions of other ways in which 9/11 changed the world–millions and millions of individual lives it touched. This is only the story of one, fairly sheltered and only indirectly affected, kid living in an old farmhouse in Vermont with his mom while the world miles away was in chaos. For the story of someone much more directly and immediately impacted by that day, see Deacon Greg Kandra’s reflection for Where Peter Is here.