In a little over a month, our son will be ten years old. Of course, this means that he was born in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on our country. It also means that on the morning of September 11, 2001 when my husband screamed, "Julie! Oh my God . . . come look at this!" I lay in bed, heavily pregnant, and not very inclined to be accommodating to his request. "What is it?" I shouted back. "There's been a terrible plane crash!" he explained. All I could think of at that moment was how annoyed I was to be roused for that news. Plane crashes are terrible tragedies but, unless you have a direct tie to it, there is no news in it that changes your life or necessitates your getting out of bed. Nevertheless, I obliged him, and tottered into our den to see what why he was so agitated.
No sooner had I recognized the building and recalled the terrible luck of that place (thinking, of course, of the 1993 bombing) than the second plane struck the second tower. This was a new order of things. I thought it was impossible for me to swell any more than I already had in the 8th month of my pregnancy, but this was not true. Anger filled every pore of my being and I thought I might explode. And then, as I watched the horror unfold--the tumbling of the buildings, the ash covering those who were able to flee, the realization that innumerable brave souls must have sacrificed themselves in order to save others as they ran into instead of running out of those buildings--the anger receded a bit and gave way to bitter heartache. Yet the anger found a permanent little refuge ever to dwell in my soul and I accepted it--though not without some regret. I would never, could never forget this. Nothing would make it right. Nothing could ever fully avenge it. It altered everyone who witnessed it as it would alter everyone who remembered it.
I remember sobbing much of the day and desperately clutching my curly-headed daughter, then only a toddler. She had no way of understanding what was going on or why her parents were so gut-stricken that day. But even she sensed that the world--which just the day before had included a carefree trip to the county fair--was now different and that joy, should it come, would come along with caution. The confidence that assures the vulnerable and makes them forget their condition was shaken. We were all vulnerable now. In truth, however, this was not a new state of things. It was just that a generation of Americans unaccustomed to acknowledging it except in abstractions, was rudely awakened to a fundamental truth of human existence: the good things in life are fragile. We had taken our security and prosperity for granted and, even more, we had assumed that our liberty was a given and a permanent fact. Coming to know what to do with this realization would be the hard (and often thankless) work of the next decade (or more). Remembering that realization--though it then seemed impossible that we could forget--will be the work of the decades to follow this anniversary.
On October 10, 2001 I woke up in the pre-dawn hours to realize that I was in labor. Since my daughter had been born in less than six hours and second babies generally come faster, I had been advised to get to the hospital at the first sign of contractions. When I arrived, however, the nurses examined me and I could hear them murmuring to each other about possibly sending me home. "She'll probably just be back later tonight or tomorrow," said one. "Tomorrow?" I thought, "No!" In addition to wishing to avoid anti-climax and continue with the dragging discomfort of heavy pregnancy, I could not bear the thought of birthing a son on the one-month anniversary of the attacks. A television, tuned to CNN, blared in the delivery room with pictures from the mammoth efforts to clean-up at Ground Zero. "Tomorrow will mark the one-month anniversary of the September 11 attacks," the anchors dutifully announced, as if anyone could forget. I pulled aside one of the nurses. Her son had just been mobilized to head over to Afghanistan and she read the look on my face. "He will be born today, not tomorrow. I understand," she assured me, and then she got my doctor to order a pitocin drip. It turned out, actually, to be barely necessary. My son was born about an hour and half after this conversation with the nurse.
As she brought him to me, I looked upon his little face and remembered my fears about raising a boy (as I come from a family accustomed only to girls). Even then, in that summer of calm before the storm, I knew that we would have to raise him to be strong in ways I did not fully comprehend. Yet I did not understand just how strong he would need to be until after 9/11. Ten years on, however, I understand that 9/11 did not alter the truth of this necessity. It only underlined it for me and, I hope, for a generation of mothers like me. And, yet, I wonder . . .
I understand the reluctance to remember and the wish to avoid unpleasant associations. But my children--both of them--have grown up in a post 9/11 world that, in the main, is marked by nothing but fear or solemn silence as it recalls those events.
We remember it when we line up like sheep to take off our shoes and have our persons probed at the airport. I remember one awful incident when my son (then 3) was traveling with a cast on his broken arm. He was whisked away from me to a separate room and swabbed for traces of explosives. Try explaining that to a toddler.
During most of the years of their schooling, 9/11 came and went without any formal acknowledgment or remark. Earth Day, on the other hand, has taken up to a week of acknowledgment and instruction. We don't fear teaching children to fear man's folly as it applies to pollution and the raping of the Earth's resources. But we still cannot look outright evil in the face. I expect that this year, being the 10th anniversary of the event, will mark some change. It will be necessary to say something
. Yet I am betting that what gets said will be something like solemn regret for the so-called "tragedy" . . . as if this really were just another terrible plane crash. This is the beginning of forgetting--this choosing not to remember or to pass on what our parents' parents (though probably with better personal reasons) must also have chosen to forget to pass on: that every good thing we have is vulnerable when we do not understand how we got it or what it takes to keep it.
In the wake of 9/11 it appeared that a generation many had discounted
was ready, quietly, to step up and do the job of securing liberty to themselves and their posterity. As we pass the 10 year mark, it is time for that same generation to consider whether their inclination to labor in reflexive silence and, often, without self-reflection is the best they can do for posterity.