by Dr. Edward Porter
Twelve years ago, determined and unpleasant people flew planes into large buildings a couple of miles from where I lived. I’d watched those buildings rise as a kid, had meals there, enjoyed the view, and lain at the base of them staring up at the mind-bendingly long, flat reach of metal and glass.
I suffered nothing. I see this phrase often in my saved emails. Those of us just living in the city didn’t want to be mistaken for those who escaped, responded, lost homes or lost loved ones. So: I suffered nothing. What I witnessed was captured better by cameras and microphones than by my memory. The one thing I will describe that they didn’t convey is the pervasive smell that hung around for months. It was raw, acrid and unnatural, like a chemistry set dumped on top of burning tires. It contained particles of sheetrock, vaporized steel, jet fuel, and, as we reminded each other, passengers and office workers.
I asked my Core One students what they remembered about 9/11 from their childhood, and what it meant to them now as adults. They spoke about fear. For some it was the first time they’d seen fear in their parents, or felt fear themselves. They catalogued the ways in which we still live in fear, and the ways that 9/11 changed their friends, families and nation. One of my students served in Iraq. Like other student-soldiers I’ve known, he’d left wanting to defend his country and came back disillusioned, having seen only vast, purposeless harm. I asked the class what Iraq had to do with 9/11. They knew the answer and its irony: everything and nothing.
But why did people from halfway around the world attack America? A few students thought in moral terms: it was because we were arrogant. We were attacked for our ego. Past that, it was hard to say. Some country had been left ruined. I could see they knew more, but had trouble articulating it. I said if they cared to, they might start with Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower.
Then, like an idiot, with five minutes left in the class, I started muttering about the erasure of the Arabo-Islamic world from Western Civilization, colonialism, the Soviet Union and oil. The specifics matter, but nobody is going to unpack them in five minutes.
I did not celebrate when Bin Laden was killed. I have no problem with the manner of his death.
I suffered nothing. I’ve had many students who came home from war. I don’t get to know about the ones who didn’t come back.
My saved emails are filled with the humor of the time. If anyone seeks insight, I heard this before that September was out.
A man pulls up to a stop light in a car flying five American flags. Another car pulls up flying four. The guy with five flags sticks his head out the window and yells, “Hey asshole, go back to Afghanistan!”