I wasn’t here to see them, the planes. The fire that turned to smoke that turned to ashes. The 110 stories of steel and glass crumbling from the sudden shock of that collision into a pile of sorrow.
Like most undergrads, I never witnessed the moment itself — only faint reflections, tiny pieces from here and there, gathered to form a dim but dawning sense of what happened. There was the former New York skyline printed across my mom’s old T-shirt souvenir, the car license plates and, then, once I’d started elementary school, the extra moment of silence every September 11th. Some teachers played “God Bless the USA” over the speakers.
Later, we would learn about globalization and the Patriot Act. We connected the flashcard terms — words like War on Terror, Department of Homeland Security, Abu Ghraib and al-Qaeda — from our AP history classes to the nightly 7:00 news hour. We heard the where-were-you-when-this-happened stories from parents and teachers, sensing something change in their voice the moment they moved themselves to talk.
And yet. At times — and especially for us — the tragedy seems especially far off, foggy, like something that should have happened perhaps 50, not 20, years ago. The world’s still processing all the emotional and political tremors, many of which our history books and political figures have no more figured out than ourselves. But we don’t think about it too much, not in our day-to-day lives at least and quite certainly not with the attention it should require of us. Most of us can’t untangle the nuances of Middle Eastern geopolitics or distinguish Iran from Iraq or even come close to calculating all the casualties and death tolls. We’ve lost the thread of all those things in the two-decade interim, that space between initial disbelief and post-terror mundanity where the unthinkable becomes the expected and Manhattan, Arlington and Somerset return to being just another set of points on a map.
I often struggle to imagine what September 11th was actually like. How do you reconstruct the pain of the day, in all its devastating totality, for someone who was not there to experience it? How do you tell a story backwards yet still preserve the full sum of the emotions in that moment? What we have left are merely snapshots, indelible but imperfect fragments of the tragedy itself: the hollowed-out pits in south Manhattan where a pair of buildings should have been, the grainy footage of passenger planes cruising at altitudes where they should not have been. None of these fragments can quite capture the raw grief, the uncertainty of that day and all the 7,303 others that followed it.
In the decades after 2001, we’d come. We’d fight. We’d stay there as the weeks dragged on for months and, eventually, years. Then on an August morning — a sunny one, just like that Tuesday in September — we’d depart almost as quickly as we had first arrived, leaving only a cloud of dashed plans and an uneasy, uncertain silence. Twenty years with hardly anything changed.
Around this time 20 years ago my mom would have first found out she was pregnant. Fatigue, morning sickness and bouts of nausea inaugurated a nine-month odyssey through hospital hallways as an unrecognizable world made space for a new beginning. A death — many deaths — and a birth. Loss and life, somehow bound together for better or worse.
I don’t know exactly what she made of everything, but it must have terrified her, thinking about the world she would be delivering a new life into. She had boarded trans-Pacific flights without TSA pat downs and set foot into the White House on Saturday afternoons. She had seen political debates that didn’t mention either al-Qaeda or the Taliban. She could remember a time before the syllables of Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan waited to be butchered on household dining tables, before the senseless Islamophobia, before the classified documents and Guantanamo Bay. We would forever be separated by the memory of what had once been and what had come after, what she knew and what I wouldn’t.
For some of us Yalies, there isn’t a before. Only an is — an aftermath and a reality we accepted upon entering this world, something we’ve borne along whether we realized it or not. Something that accompanied us through school safety drills, airport trips and all the other milestones of childhood. We grew with it as it grew with us, navigating the strange frontiers of a foreign world that had just begun to unfold. We mourned by living, which was the best way we knew how — because you never really do forget tragedy, even if you can’t recall it.
So 9/11 isn’t a scar — it’s a birthmark, perhaps. A present bearing silent witness to the past. A kind of silent, subconscious remembering, in a way.
HANWEN ZHANG is a sophomore in Benjamin Franklin College. His column is titled ‘Thoughtful spot.’ Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.