Remembering The Day I Watched The Twin Towers Fall
I wrote this essay last year today. It’s called, “How We Feel: Callous, But Desperate”.
One headline on the New York Times website today reads, “Obama to Liken ISIS Fight to Campaigns in Yemen and Somalia” by Mark Landler, Jonathan Weisman, and Michael D. Shear. Another, from yesterday, reads, “Lena Dunham is Not Done Confessing“, written by one Meghan Daum. The latter is a mildly interesting piece that introduces readers to Dunham’s upcoming book release, gives some background information on Dunham’s celebrity, draws a comparison between her and Woody Allen, then presents some insight on the backlash against Dunham. She cites Dunham’s looks as a possible provocation for the American public. Later on, she reasons:
Of course, there’s a very good argument to be made that there are too many people, young women especially, writing about their personal experiences these days and not enough willing to report from the battle lines that exist outside their own heads.
I reread a few times, feeling personally targeted. How did Daum know? Currently, I have one notebook that I’ve been writing in this summer, and it is literally filled with two things only: grocery shopping lists and long, painful, idiotic passages on how insecure I feel in my romantic relationship. But no matter; the ignorance of statement like this in an article about the success of mainstream feminist Lena Dunham is proof that the New York Times is a piece of shit. Okay, I’m joking, but how can a literature review that jerks off Tao Lin and Chad Kultgen, or really any post-modern male writer that worships David Foster Wallace and Brett Easton Ellis publish something like this? Adele Waldman’s Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. of last year is possibly brilliant, as the author cements her understanding of the nuances of the author-narrator male voice. Her protagonist spends his days in a Brooklyn apartment, alternating between video games and eating take-out, sleeping with decently intelligent, decently attractive women, and occasionally pulling all-nighters to churn out editorials. These guys make writing sound so easy. I’m not so sure where the battle lines are in stories that assume anybody cares about twenty-something year old men who pop some pills and philosophize in their urban solace, searching for ways to connect to a world that is just so “desolate”.
I also feel guilty, however. My friends and I say, “We support Lena Dunham, but not her branch of feminism. She’s very problematic.” But just as Meghan Daum’s comment on women in literature pinpointed an area of self-consciousness, so does Lena Dunham. When I see her naked on television, I am repulsed; some voice inside me screams, “You look like that too! Never eat macaroni and cheese again!” So really, where do I stand on the battle lines? Not far from Ms. Lena Dunham. My parents are both artists. Lena was raised in a SoHo Loft, while I spent my fabulous childhood in a TriBeCa warehouse, running around barefoot on Greenwich Street, among the likes of Edward Albee and Matisse descendants. I also take my chances to place myself among those who deserve to complain when I can. “I’m a woman, so I understand” I explain patiently, when my boyfriend David scoffs at my claims to street cred. I told him once he has no “cultural currency” since he’s not half-French like ahem, me.
I followed up with an explanation: “All my friends are mixed races! I’ve dated not one, but two half-black guys.”
Have no fear: David and I have spent this summer “checking our privilege”; basically masturbating ourselves in conversation over the unfathomable atrocities Israel continues to commit in Palestine. Both of us being fully Jewish, I have to try to make myself feel better: I went to the City College of New York, the public university with a rich history of activism and social unrest. I interned at radical media organization Democracy Now! and I graduated with a minor in Women’s Studies. I have a right to my leftist opinions, no?
As it turns out, my deepest connection to any battle lies in my journals, and perhaps in the other headline in the Times today. I witnessed the attacks on the Twin Towers on Tuesday, September 11 thirteen years ago. That morning, I was waiting outside of my elementary school on Warren Street, only blocks away from the Trade Center. In one moment we were loitering on the sidewalk, and in the next, a dog tied to a tree on a leash bit my friend’s hand, perhaps signifying the arrival of the Boeing 707 above. My classmates and I glanced at the sky, watching as the plane whirred heavily, then remained still as we watched it seamlessly intercept one tower. Recently, my old classmate Lorenzo Bueno told me that while we were being ushered inside, I turned to him and said, “You know this is all your fault, right?”
I may have conveniently blacked this memory out, probably not wanting to identify my 5th grade self as a total sociopath. I do remember more of my reaction this way though: when we settled in our classroom on the second floor, our teacher closed the blinds, until a few minutes later, when we heard another crash. Dana, the teacher, instructed Grits Gittens to peek under the blinds and report back to the class. He looked back at us, mirroring our confusion: “The other tower is hit”. Almost instantly, the entire class of twenty was in tears. Except for me. I looked around, mystified– this is what they look like when they cry? It was a wondrous experience. Fucking Nick Baur-Levy, who told me in the past days that I would never be a cheerleader (a huge jab, as I was terribly self conscious about my premature need for a training bra), was bawling, his face contorted into expressions I could have never imagined possible. Some surmised that a movie was being filmed. Others hoped it was an accident. Parents started rushing in, pulling out their crying children. My mom came for too. We sprinted home, but bumped into my best friend Eliza on Harrison Street. She had been late to school, and was sobbing hysterically, managing to communicate that she had seen both towers get hit. We turned to watch the smoke billowing, the chaos punctured by the sounds of bodies falling from towers and hitting the floor. They weren’t much more than specks, but we could still see one man waving his white shirt in surrender. When another explosion took place, he jumped. When I got home, I pulled out my diary, anxiously scribbling while waiting for the call-to-action from my parents. “We’re going to die!” I told my guinea pig Squishy, and my stuffed animal Nana. I wasn’t going to leave them behind. My mother and father gathered my two sisters and I, and we left TriBeCa on foot. “We’ll never come home,” I thought, feeling very solemn, with Squishy struggling in the cardboard mobile home I had constructed for our journey.
Two weeks later, we did return home. When I returned to school, a shift in atmosphere in the classroom was palpable, and not just because our entire grade was squatting inside one Greenwich Village school until P.S.234 was deemed safe for our return. The kids were angry. I overheard in the cafeteria, “I wish I could pull out all of Osama Bin Laden’s toenails.”
Many agreed. “Seriously, I would torture him if I could. I’d yank out his toenails one by one, so it really, really hurt.”
I wrote in my diary that night: “My life is very different now, but I don’t want to blame Arabs like everybody else.”
Cue applause for me, the smartest, most socially conscious pre-teen of all time. I’m joking! But considering the aftermath of September 11, I can only assume that parents, and probably their televisions, formed the views that my peers had so quickly developed. I know that’s how I was affected. What I felt on the morning of September 11 was shock, not complete indifference. As an American child, I had no way of assimilating any of what I viewed into my life experience. I was in this state of shock up until the moment I watched the coverage of the attacks, late at night on the 11th. The station looped footage of the planes hitting the towers and smoke and debris and passport photos of the terrorists and death toll numbers and more images of crying people and then–then I was very, very scared. I also felt scared while watching a Vice Documentary on the rise and spread of the Islamic State in Iraq. The large number of children indoctrinated by militants tells a story of the climate these kids were raised in, and furthermore, provides a context for why the I.S. can exist. No eleven-year-old naturally conceives of “terrorism”. I’m twenty-three and I will never have to witness an event like 9/11 again. I absolutely can’t conceive of what it must feel like to see bombs regularly, or to live in constant fear of another nation’s military. I don’t have to, because American lives have been established as the most valuable onthe planet. I feel thankful, I do– I really, really like my Dunham-esque life– but I feel so disgusted, and so powerless. The Islamic State is no motley crew of bloodthirsty homicidal maniacs; they’re organized, and intelligent, and comprehend the American media and public more than most natural-born citizens of the United States. The execution of two Americans on camera is literally bait for the American military; I.S. could not possibly commit such acts without anticipating the repercussions. Tonight, as Obama addresses the nation, announcing the rollout of backwards policies that will militarize enemies of ISIS, and employ war strategies created during Vietnam, I know that we as oppressors and perpetrators of systematic violence in the Middle East, are the real savages. In turn, I feel a very familiar sense of desperation. It’s no feeling any different than that of being unheard, or every time I try to communicate some emotion and I realize that the situation will not yield to me. I cry easily, and often. And probably like many other young women who write about their personal experiences (those fucking bitches), I understand the difficulty of operating and commenting on battles, knowing that when I do, people will criticize my body, or my attitude, or assume that I don’t deserve to be there in the first place. Hannah Horvath put it better than I can: “Any mean thing someone’s going to think of to say about me I’ve already said to me, about me, probably in the last half-hour.”
The upside to this crisis of privilege is the hope that it can create a foundation for empathy and human connection. If I feel unheard, whether in theory, or conversation or through my writing, then what could the children and women and men of Iraq, Palestine, Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Kuwait, Afghanistan, Haiti, Somalia, and Pakistan possibly feel? I couldn’t possibly speak for any of them, nor would I want to. I like Marilyn Manson’s approach in Bowling for Columbine, when asked what he would tell the victims of the school shooting. He says, “I wouldn’t say a single word to them. I would listen to what they have to say, and that’s what no one did.”
I understand that the United States is nowhere close to even acknowledging the voices that validate the struggles we singlehandedly create in the Arab world, or anywhere else. I also understand that Meghan Daum wouldn’t be even be able to publish an op-ed that would have any other purpose than to further subjugate Arabs anyway–she can’t report from the battle lines either. All I can do tonight is try to communicate something, even to my diary, with the awareness that other people in the world exist, and they cry, just as often, or– oh my god, is it possible? – more than I do.