(Liya Rechtman)– Today marks eleven years since the day a plane flew into the Twin Towers and destroyed, over the course of minutes, the Manhattan skyline, as I had known it for the first nine years of my life.
I was in 4th grade in 2001. At 8:46 AM, when American Airlines flight 11 from Logan Airport hit the first of the two towers, we were still taking attendance in my math class. That year I had gone up a level in math, and sat proudly as an exactly middling math student on the first Tuesday of middle school. By 9:03 AM, when the second plane hit, our teacher had begun to outline the class’s goals for the year. She was interrupted before the 9:25 bell rang by the head of the middle school. He burst into the classroom and through the open door we could see hordes of students rushing downstairs.
“Airstrike. Everyone get down to the basement.”
All the classes assembled in the dance studio/basement gym. Even the high-school kids were required to sit tight until their parents were reached.
“It’s Russia!” my friend Grace turned around and declared to the rest of the 4th graders huddled in a circle.
“No, no, it’s not Russia. It’s just an accident,” another boy told us. He had been outside when the planes hit for his first day of “gym-park” (our P.E. equivalent class). The park we played in was situated close enough to the Hudson river and therefore lower Manhattan that the entire class had seen the planes. “It was an accident, just some kid with a remote control plane that crashed into the building.”
September 11 marked less than a week after I had come back from my summer vacation in Israel, where the Second Intifada raged on. On August 30th, a masked Palestinian gunman had shot an elderly Jewish man in Ramallah at point blank range. Over the course of our vacation, more than eight people had been killed in terrorist attacks. So when I said: “No, no it’s the Palestinians, they’re bombing us because we support Israel” that’s the world context my nine-year-old mind was engaged with.
We had off from school the next day and some kids still couldn’t get home to Manhattan. One of the boys in my class found out that his father, a businessman who worked in the World Trade Center, was on the missing persons list. His father never came home.
Last year marked the 10th anniversary of 9/11 and Amherst College held a special memorial. This year, though, our website displays a picture of happy first year’s with lanyards. I guess year #11 isn’t as worth remembering? Perhaps the where-are-we-now trope isn’t as poignant if pointed out year after year.
But I think where we are now, today, on an anniversary indivisible by 5 or 10 is just as important to note. We are at a place where children born after 9/11 are starting 6th grade. To them, if September 11 means anything it’s a historical date related to a cultural narrative that is as murky to them as the smog-filled air sweeping over the Hudson River and into downtown Brooklyn was to me 11 years ago today.
Yes, the 9/11 Memorial Museum is up and running in New York. Natives like myself who feel strongly effected and tourists alike can stroll through and take a look at the state-of-the-art curatorial finesse and in-depth historical analysis of the impact and relevance the attacks have had on our national history. I don’t mean to say that this isn’t important and well done. It is both of those things. While I haven’t visited the museum yet I certainly intend to once I’m back in the city.
I only mean to say that the very creation of a museum signifies that 9/11, like every other great historical events, has been added into the textbooks. It is no longer a current moment but a remembered (or, in the case of our youngest citizens – unremembered) past. It does not even constitute a yearly event, as the Holocaust does, but a day we remember perhaps once a decade after the first 10-ish years. If that. Maybe this is “fair.” Yes, our country lost much on 9/11/2001, but proportionately Israel lost that percentage of its population every year during the Second Intifada (2000-2005). Which is just my personal reference point, and doesn’t begin to grappled with massive death tolls due to violence and terrorism internationally. Since 2001 we have entered into two new wars and have created no new holidays to signify those tragedies. Moreover, since 2001 we have seen both the Bush and the Obama administrations radically alter the entire landscape of the United States.
What does that mean for those of us who were there? Where do the individuals who where present for pivotal cultural moments stand in the context of this organically diminishing legacy?
I suppose we can count ourselves as among the most, and best informed on the moment. That isn’t to assume that we are the best informed when it comes to the political ramifications or origins of 9/11 – certainly one didn’t have to physically “be there” for that. No, we who lived in New York and interacted with others both on September 11, 2001 and in its wake understand what a society looks like as it communally encounters terrorism on American ground, tragedy and trauma.
I am by no means the only person who lost someone (or, more tangentially in my case) knows someone who lost someone very close to them in the attack. I am not the only person who encountered an ominous foreshadowing of the years to come, or witnessed great acts of heroism and selflessness in New York that day. I write this just because I am someone with a platform to tell my story. And I don’t want to forget.