I wrote this in 2008 and re-publish it every 9/11.
I’ve never delved deeply into my 9/11 memories on this blog or anywhere else but since there seems to be a movement to “put 9/11 behind us” among some on the left I wanted to put forward why I can’t, and I won’t.
I was in grad school on 9/11, Wesleyan University in Middletown CT. I had moved to Connecticut to make a change in my life and dry out. I lived in a small apartment at the time that stank like oily Chinese food until I had spent most of my free time there smoking Djarums and watching an old tv without cable. I worked a couple of lousy jobs until I started a job at the Middlesex County Y.M.C.A. in their before and after school program where busy parents could drop their kids off two hours before school began and three hours afterward. And yes there were parents who left there kids there all five hours.
I usually slept between shifts unless I had a class. I usually scheduled classes at night because I was used to being up late, but once I decided to stop drinking I didn’t have much to do. I didn’t have many friends either, because the first time you tell your old drinking buddies you’re on the wagon is usually the last time you see them. So I sat up most nights and smoked, sometimes I walked around a little but often enough I just sit in my living room, me and two cats and a pack of clove cigarettes.
The night before the attacks I had smoked more than usual and I was out of cigarettes so instead of going home and catching a nap after my first shift I hit a local smoke shop and strolled home. I remember it was a nice day and everyone seemed happy. I had even gotten off work early, usually we could get the kids to their teachers by 8:30 or so but I think that day it was much earlier. So I went home with my pack of cigarettes and decided to watch the news while drinking a an iced coffee I got from the Dunkin’ Donuts next door to me.
When I turned on the television the first tower was already burning. My mother went through the Trade Center everyday and her office was on Church street so I was worried. As I watched and the story unfolded I got a sickening feeling this was no accident as the local news had reported. I was about to call my mother when I saw the second plane hit on live television.
I remember yelling “No!” to the screen, I remember being shocked but mostly I remember feeling helpless. By that time phones were already useless, I couldn’t get through to my mother, I couldn’t get through to my wife who was working at a college just outside of New York City and the only information I was getting was from the news. At some point I knew this was a war although at that point I remember thinking it was the Russians because they had used commercial aircraft to invade Afghanistan.
I especially remember there was a Cuban guy who worked some sort of food cart outside the towers who was interviewed and he kept going back into the burning towers to help people just before the collapse and I thought about the fact that, given how much time I spent there before I moved, I probably bought food from him. And now he was dead.
In that little Connecticut college town I watched the news show examples of heroism as the people in New York pulled together to try to save their fellow citizens, and I watched as reports of other planes crashing horrified the nation. I kept trying to reach my wife and my mother and I couldn’t. I was panicked and upset and was desperately trying to figure out a way to get to New York when the phone finally rang. It wasn’t my mother or my wife it was my boss. They needed me at work early because the teachers were leaving.
The same elementary school teachers who had spent a good deal of their time telling kids who weren’t old enough to vote that Bush didn’t care about them (I saw the campaign posters they had kids draw in support of Gore) had fled like rats because they were scared terrorists would target a tiny college town no one’s ever heard of. I have never been as disgusted as I was in the moment Matt, my boss, told me he needed people to come in to staff the program because the school was closing. The school was closing but the kids were still there.
Matt was a good guy though. He asked if I was O.K., he told me I could use the program’s line to call my family if I needed to. So I went in to work and spent much of the rest of 9/11 with some worried kids who we entertained with card games while I discreetly slipped off to call my wife and my mother. My mother at the time was one of those people covered in ash walking across the Brooklyn bridge while my wife was comforting the kids in her department who had loved ones working downtown. Not every teacher abandoned their post, but enough did.
It was the next day before I learned I still had a living mother and my wife was safe. That same day a little boy in the program, about 10-years-old, came up to me in the morning and asked if I saw the Trade Centers collapse. He then grinned and started talking about how cool it was. The site supervisor whisked him away before I could respond, though I frankly don’t blame a child for what the parents allow. His parents never apologized.
Those next few days I started hearing, on my campus, the first rumblings of how we were at fault, how we shouldn’t respond with violence, how the whole thing was a tragedy we could have avoided. I heard nothing of the heroism of the many who died or the cowardice of those in our midsts who abandoned children to hide in their living rooms while child care workers, many of whom were teens themselves, came to the rescue of the school system. And I especially didn’t hear about the unmitigated evil of those who planned and executed the attacks.
I already heard people saying we should put this behind us.
The thing about 9/11 I will never forget is that at time when I was changing my views on a lot of things, like drugs and drinking and the various givens of the Libertarian lifestyle I wanted until then to lead, I saw a little snippet of truth. I saw that there really are two kinds of people in this world. There are the people who are selling hot dogs from a cart one minute and the very next they are ready to sacrifice their lives to save others from a burning inferno, and then there are people who leave children in a building alone, afraid and confused when they get the slightest hint of danger. There are people who pray for the victims of 9/11 and there are those who desecrate their memory by implying they deserved to die.
There are people like myself who tear up when they think of that day, and there are people who make jokes about 9/11 and those who did their best on that day to minimize the loss of life.
I hear people say that 9/11 changed them but I think instead of changing me 9/11 taught me something. It showed me who people really are and who I wanted to be. Most of all it showed me who I didn’t want to be, another out of touch professor who couldn’t bring themselves to applaud the heroes of 9/11.
Most of our “elites” hate the country and the rest of the people in it. They think 9/11 is a joke, they think patriotism is wrong and they think the rest of us, no matter how educated, don’t matter. That’s the key to understanding the teachers who left the elementary schools that day and to the Wonkette staff who think 9/11 is an example of American over sentimentality. To them the people who died, the people who served admirably and the people who were moved by 9/11 just don’t matter.
Neither does America, neither does our troops or even the ideals of freedom and liberty for all. What matters to them is them. What matters is their comfort and their ability live in an untouched cocoon of ideological purity where all voices say the same thing and no man need the courage of their convictions. What matters to them is the world not seeing how weak, craven and repugnant they are.
It was tough returning to Wesleyan to finish my Masters, not because of the work or bad memories, but because I know what kind of people I meet on university campuses. I know they’d leave me in a fire if I was unconscious, I know they’d stand back and watch me be murdered and afterward they’d tell people I probably had it coming. I know that no matter how much they claim to be interested in the welfare of others that for most their true face is that of a coward who will never be there for you when the chips are down. Just being near people like that makes me sick.
That’s why, despite the exhortations of the left, I cannot “put 9/11 behind me” or move on. I see it in their eyes and their faces, the cravenness, the spite and the nihilism. 9/11 exposes people like that for what they are, which is why they are so ready to have it forgotten. But the lesson of 9/11 is not one that can easily be erased. There are heroes in this world and their are cowards, and you can tell which by what whether or not they honor the victims of 9/11.