This is an unusual 9/11 anniversary for me. I turned twenty-four a few weeks ago, so this twelfth anniversary means that tomorrow I’ll have lived more of my life in the post-9/11 world than in the pre-9/11 one.
I had lived on the West Coast my entire life until recently so I didn’t see the World Trade Center get hit live. My mom came in and shook me awake as soon as she’d woken up and told me “America is under attack.” I couldn’t even process it until I got downstairs and saw them replaying footage of smoke and flames. By the time the sun rose in Nevada, both towers had fallen, the Pentagon was on fire, and thousands of my people were dead. I went to sleep in one world and woke up in another.
I remember the entire school talking about it, despite knowing nothing about it. (I was in seventh grade at the time.) I remember the principal using the school announcements to tell us we were safe and had nothing to worry about. I remember kids chattering excitedly at recess to hide their fear. We declared triumphantly that we were going to war with whoever did it. We had no sense of the gravity of what that meant. Having known nothing else, our faith in the swift, unyielding power of American hegemony was still absolute.
I remember getting home and finding out my birthday present from my aunt had finally arrived, a LEGO set whose details I can’t remember. My birthday’s in late August but she lives in Hawaii, so it always took longer to get there. I built it while George W. Bush addressed the nation from the Oval Office. He spoke of “huge structures collapsing” and how the attacks “have filled us with disbelief, terrible sadness, and a quiet, unyielding anger.” I don’t think, even today, I ever felt anger about the attacks. It remained too abstract. The disbelief and terrible sadness, however, was endless.
That’s what fills my memories of the aftermath too. I remember the numbness most clearly, when you put on a brave face when everyone else is around and then lose it the moment you’re alone. The only other time I’ve felt that was after Newtown. And I was 3,000 miles away from everything. I didn’t even know anyone who lived on the East Coast back then. What right had I to grieve?
But most of all, I remember the changes. I first flew again a month later. Reno was a small airport then and the security increase was barely noticeable, but a connecting flight took us through Los Angeles. There, the main concourse still had men in body armor armed with automatic rifles standing every fifty paces. The absurdity of it all — did we expect an entire battalion to attack the terminal in broad daylight in the middle of California? — struck me as much as in the seventh grade as it does now that I’m twenty-four. Soon it became commonplace.
I wish I hadn’t woken up that morning. Every anniversary, I hope that I’ll open my eyes in my old childhood bedroom, and that I’ll still be twelve years old, and that the last twelve years will all have been a dream. But I know it isn’t. It’s a nightmare from which the whole world is still trying to wake.