On September 11, 2001, I was three days into my senior year of college at the University of Michigan. I came home from an early-morning class at around 9:00, took a nap, and got a call from a friend who told me to turn on the news around 9:45. I don’t remember everything clearly; I may still have thought it was an accident, even though the second plane had hit by then.
One and a half years earlier, on December 13, 2000, I went to an afternoon English class. The day previous, the Supreme Court had ruled 7-2 that a statewide Florida recount was unconstitutional, and Al Gore had conceded the election. I wasn’t aware of this until my professor said we were going to cancel class, and talk about the fact that Bush had just hijacked the presidency. It was Ann Arbor; she was an English professor; those were her politics. I think I was miffed about it, but probably not outraged or anything, although I was a liberal. If there were any conservatives in the class they didn’t say anything.
Sixteen months after 9-11, in March of 2003, I was at Fort Benning, Georgia. I enlisted in the Army after college. Two months into Basic I had broken my leg on a road march, and had been reassigned to the Physical Rehabilitation unit. One of my fellow Rehab mates (I will call him Smith here, although that’s not his name) had gotten a clean bill of health in February, and graduated Basic Training at the start of March. His entire graduating class was assigned to the 3rd Infantry Division, right on the same base where all of us who had joined the infantry did Basic. The class was told minutes after graduating that the division was immediately deploying to the Middle East, to invade Iraq. I ran into Smith at the Post Exchange after he graduated. He was with his girlfriend—a straw-haired girl from Iowa, who looked all of fifteen years old. Smith’s shopping basket looked like a Trick-or-Treater’s: twenty Snickers bars, pints of ice cream, bags of Swedish Fish and Sour Patch Kids. He had a 24-hour pass before he had to report. We didn’t get to eat anything sweet during Basic, so the youngsters tended to gorge themselves when given the opportunity.
I was still on crutches at the time. The doctors told me I had another two months of Rehab left. I told Smith good luck. I will always remember what he looked like that day, in his starched, short-sleeve Class B uniform, currently with no adornment but a name plate: as wiry and fit as a rabbit, completely unsure of what he was getting into, and far, far too young.
Five years after I saw Smith, September 2008, I was in an airport in Atlanta. I was going back to the Army, after being involuntarily recalled to active duty. Back to Fort Benning, a place I’d never thought I’d see again. I bought a Newsweek and sat down to read it at the airport cafeteria (I think I was having Sbarro’s). The headline was about the impending financial collapse (I think Fareed Zakaria wrote it). Was this the end of American prosperity? The death of the empire? Were the end times upon us? Whatever happened, the article said, we could be certain that nothing would ever be the same again. My mind was far away. Somewhere in the back of it I may have been glad I didn’t have to find a job over the next year and a half, because I was going to Afghanistan.
When I think back to these moments, I always try to see if I can recapture exactly what I was thinking, and how I felt. It seems important. If I can recapture everything perfectly, I think, I will be able to connect these events in some meaningful way. Bush wins. The towers fall. We invade Afghanistan. We invade Iraq. The economy collapses…..and then what happens?
I can’t do it. There is logic, and there is progression, but there is no satisfaction. Getting Osama doesn’t make 9-11 any less senseless. If Iraq and Afghanistan are thriving democracies in ten years, I still don’t know if it will have been worth it. When I see the memorials, I am deeply moved, and I am also completely unsure if we have learned anything, or if we know where we’re headed.
It is right and just, that 9-11 is still so deeply remembered, still so deeply felt. Nothing has yet been resolved. The book on this chapter of American history is still open, being lived everyday, by all of us.