Our local public radio station was taking requests for music that listeners wanted to hear on the tenth anniversary of 9/11/2001. A lot of people wanted them to play New York-related songs. There was a request for “Keep on Rockin’ In the Free World.” I knew right away what I would request, and that song still reminds me of that sad and terrifying week in September 2001.
Like most Americans, I was glued to local news agencies’ coverage of the aftermath of the attacks that have come to define certain times of our lives. I was newly out of college, living in Boston, working at Boston College, the university where I was attending a graduate program in philosophy. I learned about what was going on in Washington, New York, and Pennsylvania at our department’s suite. A lady for whom I did not much care rushed out of her office while I was on the phone with one of my two bosses, from his office downstairs. We gathered that a [sic] 747 hit the World Trade Center in some freak and tragic accident.
I don’t need to recount the following minutes and hours for anyone. We all remember the frightening and disheartening updates. I remember the confusion that led the same lady to say that there was smoke coming from the White House. My father, in the military at the time, was no stranger to meetings held at the Pentagon, and I couldn’t get through to my family on the phone. I couldn’t reach my then-girlfriend across the Charles River, working at an academic journal at Harvard.
There was to be a memorial service on campus, but I just wanted to get as far from the place in which I learned the news as I could, to hug my girlfriend and to grieve. I went outside to smoke on the marble steps—to chain smoke—and felt fighter planes flying over Boston before I heard them. We had a television in the office around which several of us took turns standing, stunned. I finally got through to my girlfriend, and we decided to get home to North Quincy, where we shared an apartment near the bay. My bosses, both new to the department and excessively paranoid about how their superiors viewed them, were concerned about looking busy. I told them that I needed to leave, to find my girlfriend, to take my hour-and-a-half-long subway ride home right then, while the trains were still running.
They responded callously. “Well, okay, you can go…if you want to,” one of them said. My girlfriend’s boss, the editor of the journal, told her that she was letting the terrorists win by leaving. “Business as usual,” it seemed, came about immediately for some people.
The subway in Boston never shut down, and I was back at work and school the next day. I had a graduate seminar on Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica that evening. Our professor said, “I don’t think we need to talk about yesterday, do we?” in a way that felt more appropriate than making a 22-year-old young man feel badly for wanting to make sure his partner and family were okay while the news was still very fresh, as my bosses had the day before. He meant that we had to make the move to get past what had happened, and we had to start walking beyond it immediately. At least, that is what I like to think he meant.
At the time, one of my colleagues was a middle-aged Russian named Alex who served his own country in Afghanistan in the 1980s. He excitedly greeted me later that week and told me that Russian bombers were fueled and ready to go and “bomb the bastards” who did it. I never learned if this was true. But I admit to being satisfied that someone was going to feel the fire after the attacks on our country. And so much the better if the guilt would be in the hands of another nation.
By Friday of that week in September 2001, I was just sad. Everyone I knew was okay. Several Boston College alums were killed, and one of their names came up first in a database I had to access daily. He was only four years older than I was, and his parents wanted to set up a scholarship in his name and in his honor. Friday night after 9/11/2001, a concert came on television that, I am convinced, was aired entirely to keep us all sane. A nation as large as ours, going through that kind of shock, was a dangerous thing. And, as the last decade shows us now, it led to some heinous actions undertaken in the name of revenge, prevention, safety, security and—eventually—n the name of freedom.
As the Irish rock band U2 took to the stage, they began to play “Peace on Earth,” from their recent album All That You Can’t Leave Behind. There was no U2 song I wanted to hear less. Suddenly, they found a D minor and then a G and were playing the introduction to “Walk On.” I cried. When U2 played that song during the stadium concert in Baltimore this summer, I cried again.
Certainly, we never will forget what happened on 9/11. Even back then, I didn’t want to. But, three days later, we had to decide what to do as a nation. How would we honor the memories of the 3,000 people killed on an incongruously beautiful day? We seemed to settle on two ways: to somehow make our country safer and to make sure it could or would never happen again; and, somewhat relatedly, we decided we would honor the fallen victims and heroes by making those responsible for their murders pay. Making sure that something like the events of 9/11/2001 would not happen again felt like walking on, to me; what happened was the past, a singular event. Dragging the deaths across the world did not feel like walking on, unless it meant walking on the throats and corpses of our enemies.
And we had to decide what to do as individuals. Would we live in fear? In anger? Would we try to heal ourselves and one another? As it turns out, at least half of our nation failed enough to walk on that we declared war on a country that had nothing to do with the attacks on the United States ten years ago. We revamped our hatred of the French, and some people came up with the resulting Freedom Fries. Flying suddenly got very tiresome, and I was personally “randomly” searched on every post-9/11 flight on which I traveled until I gave up flying in favor of Amtrak. We were not “over” anything as persons or as a people. We were still looking for ways to express the frustration we felt over not seeing the attacks coming and our inability to keep people who hated us from killing innocent people—again.
More than eight years after the invasion of Iraq, I cannot be alone in shaking my head while looking back on the foolishly frightened souls who bought into the story that metal tubes and shadows in the desert meant that Iraq had WMDs and a key role in 9/11 and that we needed to bomb them, posthaste. The American military is still maintaining two war fronts, related only in the sacrifice of the individuals who actually have to patrol in heavy gear under constant threat of the same annihilation that befell 3,000 people that Tuesday morning in 2001.
I found myself weeping at home alone on the tenth anniversary of 9/11, while my wife and daughter were on a walk around our North Baltimore home. I see that I myself have failed to walk on. And I see that I am in large company. I hope that after these 10 years, we can move on, perhaps explore why people would go through all of the trouble of learning to fly planes just so that they could use them as missiles to murder civilians on a weekday.
I am wondering how long it will take for our response to 9/11 to stop looking like increased airport security and prisons operated by our government, wherein detainees have no American rights because they are not on American soil. I am trying to conceive of when I can reconcile myself to the fact that the planes that hit the towers flew right over my home and over me while I was on my way to work, enjoying a sunny morning and the upcoming autumn in New England. I am hoping that 9/11/2001, after 10 years, can become a part of our past, a terrible episode that we will not allow our enemies to repeat. I pray that 9/11 will be something we walk away from, not something we force ourselves to relive every year.
As the song tells us, we’ve got to leave it behind.