Sunday, September 11, 2011

Visions of 9/11

It was like a slap in the face.

I pulled the Sunday paper out of its plastic sleeve, opened it, and was hit by a photo, taking up the entire top half of the front page, of the explosion as the second plane hit the second tower. The decision by the Spartanburg Herald-Journal to run this picture was sensationalistic and tasteless. Thrusting that awful image once again before its readers was a small gift to the twisted minds that conceived of and carried out the horror of that day.

Front page of the
New York Times, 9/11/11
The New York Times did so much better. In the same place on its front page was a beautiful photo of the new memorial in New York. In subdued tones of blue and grey, it shows the engraved names of some of those who died, with raindrops splattered across the surface like so many tears.

I turned the first photo face down, and kept the second in my field of vision as I read the papers.

I did not watch the coverage of the services. I listened. It's my instinct--I'm a morning radio person. Growing up, my parents always had the radio on (WNEW-AM, 1130 in New York) as we ate breakfast. But this was a conscious decision. I thought of turning on the TV. But Saturday night, when I put it on, it was already set to a channel showing a 9/11 retrospective, and I recoiled from the images.

As I listened, Paul Simon's beautiful and moving rendition of "The Sound of Silence" explained my reaction to me:
And the vision that was planted in my brain
Still remains
I didn't need to see any visions. So many are planted in my brain.

The first is returning to my office after teaching my first class of the day. I was in only my second week at Wofford, still learning my way around campus.

While I had been in class, the first planes had hit New York. I learned what had happened from an email from my best friend, who was in his office in Newark, NJ, across the river. I can see the desk, the computer, the wall and doorway behind them. They seemed to swirl together as disorientation set it.

The next is being gathered in a classroom with other faculty and students, watching a TV sitting atop a rolling cart, as the first tower crumbled. For several moments, I simply refused to believe what my senses were telling me. This is not happening. This is NOT HAPPENING.

The college gave professors the personal option of canceling or holding classes the rest of the day. I decided to meet my one o'clock class, not to talk about the scheduled topic of the Renaissance, but to discuss what had happened.

That choice was reinforced by the third vision of the day. I was with some colleagues having lunch in the college cafeteria, eyes glued to the TV in the corner of the room. By that time, all of the horrors of the day had already occurred: the towers had been hit, the Pentagon had been hit, Flight 93 had crashed, the towers had fallen. But we did not know at that point if that was all. We were waiting for the next hit.

Yet it seemed to me, looking at the students around me, that they had not grasped fully what had happened. For many of them, I thought, it seemed like just another day. At least with the students in my class, I could try to help them understand it.

So I went to class, and did my best to explain what Al Qaeda was, what was known, what was unknown.

The last vision of the day is a student's face. Her name was Karen, she was a first-year student. Bright, serious, engaged, sitting up front, as such students tend to do. Her eyes wide, her countenance exuding concern, she asked me: "Are we going to war?"

Yes, I think so, I told her. I can't imagine this would not provoke a military reaction. And I saw the fear in her eyes.

I could not foresee that day that ten years later, we would still be at war. That on the morning of the tenth anniversary, I would hear the news that 77 American soldiers in Afghanistan were wounded by a truck bomb.

How we got here is a topic for another day. Today is for those names, for that new vision of the memorial, now planted in my brain.


  1. I've been avoiding coverage. It's just too much. But I read this. Nothing intelligent to add...just a thank you and a hug from here.

  2. An amazing post. Thank you.

    I have been remembering that entire morning--I was living in WA State at the time--from the morning walk with a friend when some stranger in a car yelled at us to go turn on the TV, to doing so and staring in stunned disbelief as the second tower went down, to reaching for the phone to call my mother to ask if she was watching only to remember that she had died the year before....What I remember most, though, is sthe numb, stunned look on a colleague's face. Her daughter had worked in tower 2, and had been going on vacation that day. But she stopped at the office to pick something up on her way to the airport. All Mary could say, over and over, was: "I watched my daughter die and I didn't even know what I was seeing."