Writing about 9/11 during the past 10 years

Like most Americans, I can still remember where I was the moment I heard that the Twin Towers had been attacked. I wrote about this vividly in a 2006 column, where I reflected on the five year anniversary of the tragedy:

It was early in the morning, I wrote, and I was a sophomore in high school. Sitting in class, a teacher rushed into the technology classroom where classmates and I were seating, learning about the history of our town. He was looking for the controls which activated cable access in all the classrooms, so that he and other faculty members could see on television what they had just heard via the Internet or other sources.

“The World Trade Center was just hit,” he said, as he disappeared in a back room. The lecture on history went on, perhaps because no one realized the impact of the situation at first, or perhaps because the teacher did realize the impact of the situation. I’ll never be sure. All I remember is my best friend, in the class with me at the time, standing up, and saying indignantly, “Doesn’t this bother anybody else?”

I nodded sympathetically, but even at 15, I didn’t quite get it right then. She sat down, and it was back to taking notes: you never knew when there would be a pop quiz or what would be on the texts.

Next period, the second plane hit, and then it did seem to bother everyone else—and the televisions came on in every room as we watched the footage of the planes hitting the towers, over and over again. We didn’t do any work after that. We just stared at the television in silence.

Back in 2006, I was a 20-year-old college junior. I was upset because no one seemed, back then, to be taking the fifth anniversary seriously.

What has become the biggest issue facing students on this fifth anniversary of the devastating event is the new Facebook.com controversy, I wrote, where nearly 724,000 students signed one online petition in less than 48 hours to protest changes made on the Website that they feel violate their privacy.

I don’t see that number of students protesting violations of privacy, and of the Constitution, that our current government enforces on us; and I don’t see that number of students coming together with so much vigor to protest violations of human rights, such as those committed five years ago.

Much, since 2006, however, has changed. In the spring of this year, when Osama bin Laden was killed, I was living in Ljubljana, Slovenia. I was teaching a seminar on American literature, and in the last five minutes of class, I diligently asked if there were any questions. That statement was broad and all-encompassing.

I was expecting a question about the Hemingway short story we’d been reading, but what I got was: “What do you think about Osama bin Laden being killed?”

I realized, then, that I was likely the only American most of these international students (who were on exchange programs in Slovenia) had ever met, never mind would meet in the next few days in the aftermath of the killing.

More questions were called out: “But do you believe Obama? Do you really think bin Laden is dead?”

This question was a bit easier for me to answer. I told them that regardless of what they thought of the U.S. or of President Barack Obama personally, that I didn’t think that he would announce news as big as this without ensuring it was 100 percent true first.

“Think about how that would look next week or next month if bin Laden showed up again,” I said. “Obama—and the U.S.—would risk losing all credibility.” My point was: even if you don’t believe that the U.S. or the president tells the truth for the right reasons, you can still find a cynical reason to believe that the U.S. and the president are telling the truth right now.

This question was similar to the one I got from 9/11 naysayers, of whom I met several while abroad, who insisted that the entire disaster was rigged or a hoax. After several conversations that went nowhere where I tried to appeal to logic, reason, and humanity to explain why the attacks very real indeed, I resorted to the most cynical response I could muster that was also, ironically, the most effective: “Do you really think the U.S. government could pull that off? Really?”

In the aftermath of Wikileaks, that was a question that most people couldn’t answer.

Back on American soil—and given the additional perspective of five more years since 2006—much, indeed, has changed. I can hardly remember that Facebook.com controversy; bin Laden is dead; a memorial is set to open; and people are paying attention, bowing their heads in respectful memory of those who died 10 years ago.

Of all the things that have changed, though, one thing remains the same: I’ll never forget that day in the technology classroom, when I was a sophomore in high school. Most of us still remember where we were in that moment we got the news.

Published this week by the Southbridge Evening News and other Stonebridge Press newspapers.

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