The year we forgot 9/11

I have never written about 9/11 before. For no reason I could think of, it always felt frivolous to me. It wasn’t until today that I understood why. I wasn’t an American, so it somehow seemed wrong for me to write about something that so terribly shook the heart of a nation.

This year, for the first time, I remember 9/11 as a newly minted American. And while I am still processing what my recently acquired citizenship means to me, I feel the need to write about it, and reconcile those two September 11ths, the one I lived 16 years ago, when I hadn’t even remotely thought about ever moving to the US, and the current one, when I am sitting down in my Chicago living room while my three American born kids sleep upstairs.

It is a weird year to do so, as the media seems to almost have forgotten all about it. If you look at any news site, you will see it as the ninth, maybe tenth story of the day. Twitter veers between being shocked and slightly embarrassed by the fact that we don’t seem to remember anymore, and making trending topics out of the other dozens of stories that have us in a nervous crisis inducing unbreakable cycle of breaking news.

August 1991.
August 1991.

I understand that the string of deadly hurricanes that have battered the American coasts deserves lots of screen, thumb and paper time. But it shouldn’t be enough for us to forget the event that, save these last months of lunacy, probably has changed the identity of this country more than any other in the last few decades. An event that, let’s not forget, took the lives of 3000 souls. Just typing such an enormous number gives me chills.

I won’t blame only Mother Nature, because time has also done its part. Last Spring, as I taught my last class for the time being, I run into my first batch of students who didn’t remember that day. They have heard about it, they have read and learned about it, but they don’t have memories of it, as, most of them being freshman college students, they were toddlers, at best preschoolers at the time it happened.

So it seems fitting on this 16th anniversary to write about how it felt that day, 5000 miles away. I still have crystal clear memories of it, marked minute by minute by the clock in the news ticker.

Although I didn’t know it at the time, the journey that brought me to where I sit now had begun a few weeks before, when I started exchanging e-mails with a guy who had just accepted his first job in Chicago.

It was right after 3 pm Spanish time. My mom’s washing machine was broken, and the technician had just arrived to fix it. As I was serving coffee in the living room, I saw the images in the newscast, at first thinking that it was the trailer of a movie. When I sat with my parents and saw the concerned look in the face of one of Spain’s most veteran news anchors, Matías Prats, I realized that it was not a movie.

I clearly remember my dad, bless his heart, saying that they just looked like two little chimneys, and there couldn’t be as many people there as they were saying. I knew he was dead wrong. When I was 11, I had had the luck of visiting New York with my aunts, and I knew that they were massive enough for a tour helicopter to fly between them. By the time the second plane hit, I was chainsmoking, in tears, and frantically looking for the telephone number of the e-mail exchanging guy, who I knew worked by the Sears tower. By then also, the technician was sitting with us in the living room, where he would stay for hours, the washing machine all but forgotten.

I stayed stuck to the TV until the evening, when I finally had the guts to call the guy to check on him. He was fine, and eventually he turned into my husband.

Keep in mind that at that time, my only link with the US was a vacation there, and a long shot of a relationship. But what happened that day still shook me to the core. The most powerful country in the world had been attacked at its soul. If it happened there, it could happen anywhere.

It also affected me in more practical ways. I was moving to the UK four days later, and the uncertainty of the whole situation almost made me change my plans, at my mom’s request. But having grown up in a region where terrorism was part of our background and daily life, I knew that if we all changed the way we lived, the terrorists had won. So I kept my plans, and on September 15th, right after the airports reopened, I moved. The image of the airports at Brussels and Leeds taken by the military will never leave me. I have traveled in similar conditions afterwards, but that first time of seeing armed soldiers in fingers was a clear indication that life as we knew it had suddenly changed.

Of the aftermath of the attack I remember how envious I was of a nation that stood united in its patriotism, in which firefighters fucking drove from all over the country to help with the recovery efforts, in which citizens stood by each other offering support. Coming from a nation that lives in a constant identity crisis, fractured and often ashamed of being proud of itself, as Spain is, all that I saw from far away during those weeks was due cause of admiration.

Maybe that is why it hurts so much to see this beautiful nation so unbelievably divided 16 years later. I’m not naive, this division didn’t happen overnight. But maybe it would be good for all of us to take a moment of this day to remember those who perished, and reflect on how our current behavior is honoring them. And as a tribute, we should keep working on building on that union that was forged that day, on the patriotism shown those weeks, a patriotism made out of love and solidarity, as it should always be. God Bless America.

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