In many ways I almost can’t believe that it’s been ten years since September 11. Perhaps it’s because I remember that day so well and it had such an impact on how I looked at the world but it feels like it was only a few months ago to me, maybe a year, not ten. And yet at the same time it really does feel like ten years have passed as well – so much has happened in the last decade, both personally and globally, that at times it almost feels like longer. I guess it’s strange that both perceptions can feel true but many people I’ve spoken to recently have said the same thing. I suppose that just shows how much of an impact September 11 really has had on the world.
I often find myself thinking back to that day. I was sixteen at the time and my parents and I were living in a hideous cockroach-infested flat in Hillsdale that we hated and were trying to move out of as quickly as possible. At the time I felt miserable; it was one of the first times that my health had worsened and I felt trapped and lonely and missed my friends. I’d also just received several nasty rejection letters, which for a sixteen year old who’d only just started writing were devastating.
Then September 11 happened and it put some things in perspective. I can still remember exactly where I was when I first heard about it; I was having a shower when my mother knocked on the door and said there’d been an explosion at the World Trade Center. I didn’t understand at first; I thought she meant there’d been an accident and didn’t think much more about it while I finished and got changed. When I came through though I knew immediately it was serious; my parents were staring at the television, horrified. I looked at the TV which had crossed to one of the US stations and saw the smoke and fire… and then moments later the second plane flew into the South Tower.
For as long as I live I don’t think I’ll ever forget the feeling in my stomach as I watched the plane hit; it was almost physical, like my soul had suddenly been ripped from my body. I felt weak at the knees and had to sit down. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing; I remember hearing shouts and screams coming through the TV but it felt surreal, like I was watching it all from somewhere far away.
We just stared at the TV for a while after that, talking a little but mostly just watching. One of the main things I remember is seeing people jumping from the windows, jumping and falling. I didn’t understand at first; I thought it was debris. I think deep down I knew they were people jumping but my mind just wasn’t able to accept what I was seeing. Then the towers collapsed; each time it happened it felt like it was in slow motion and I remember trying to speak, to shout, but only managed a whispery “no”. My eyes were wet and I cried silently, the first time I had cried in years.
Probably what I remember the most though are the images and sounds from the aftermath; of people walking through the streets, dazed, covered in dust; of walls covered with photos of the missing and flowers; of hundreds of shrill alarms ringing constantly in the background of news reports. I’d actually not known what those alarms were until I heard it mentioned today; I had thought they were car alarms but they were the alarms that the firefighters wore, going off beneath the rubble.
Most of all though I remember the solidarity afterward, the way America and the world seemed to come together in the days and weeks after the attacks. There was anger and sadness but also hope and unity as well. It wasn’t just America that was attacked that day, it was an attack on the values of the Western world and in a way I think, on that day, we were all Americans. We stood as one.
I had thought my memories of September 11 would fade somewhat as time went by and to some extent they have but I don’t think that they will ever truly fade. I think certain experiences have such a strong impact on you that you never forget them; they become part of you and shape who you are and, even watching from half the world away, September 11 was one for me.
I think one of the reasons why it had such a strong impact on me, other than the visual impact, was that it was the first event that really changed how I looked and thought about the world. As someone who grew up in the 90s, the world seemed a lot smaller and simpler before September 11; the attacks made me realise just how large and complicated the world really was and I suppose I lost my innocence on that day in many ways.
The other reason I think is because September 11 was the catalyst that eventually led me to becoming an atheist. I know many people found comfort in religion after the attacks (and later after Bali too) and I understand why but personally I struggled to balance what happened with what I’d been taught to believe. While it wasn’t until much later in 2007/2008 that I finally became an atheist, looking back I can see now that it was September 11 that started it.
Thinking about September 11 now though, it’s remarkable how much has happened and how much the world has changed over the last ten years. I doubt that there’s one part of our lives that hasn’t been affected by September 11 in some way; from security at airports when we fly, to the way we interact with different cultures, to the media saturation and the kinds of entertainment we consume, to the way we’ve learnt to live with fear and uncertainty. It really is a different world.
If I’m honest like many people I’m not that happy about a lot of what has changed. I understand the need for increased security but I find the intrusion into our everyday lives by both government and police excessive and the way that our rights have been restricted and the way asylum seekers continue to be treated by the government in the name of national security particularly concerns me. Perhaps it’s a necessary evil but it feels more and more like we’re being ruled by Big Brother in Australia and that’s not an environment I want to live in.
It is remarkable just how much has happened in the last ten years though when you stop to think about it. If someone had told me that New York, Bali, Madrid and London would be attacked and we’d see the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, devastating earthquakes and tsunamis across Asia, governments overthrown, the first African American President and Australia’s first female Prime Minister, the end of Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden, the rise of the Kindle and the iPad and social networking, the death of Heath Ledger and Michael Jackson, all within the next ten years, I wouldn’t have believed them. It feels like enough to have filled two decades… and yet at times it’s all gone by so quickly as well.
For me personally a lot has changed over the last ten years as well. In 2001 I was 16 and dreamt of being a journalist; next week I’ll be 27 and that dream is now mostly just a memory. I have a beard and a little less hair now and I feel older and a little wiser. My taste in music has changed, as has my taste in food. My health is probably worse now than it was, yet somehow I feel happier and more content with who I am at the same time.
I’ve had my heart broken and my dreams trampled on but somehow I’ve always come back stronger. I no longer wear glasses except to read and I’m finally working on my first novel. I’ve felt helpless while my grandmother almost died and I’ve lost old friends and made new ones and we’re about to move again now after almost a decade. So much has changed, and yet, so much is still the same. Life goes on, I guess, even when you’re not looking.
One of the things I always think about with September 11 as well is music. I remember in the days after the attacks I would often turn on the radio or MusicMax, just to take myself away from the scenes that dominated the news, if only for a few minutes. It was how I discovered many of my favourite artists, like Dido and Sarah McLachlan, Radiohead and Nick Cave and Coldplay.
There’s one song though that more than any other I associate with September 11. It’s Ryan Adams’ New York, New York. It was shot just four days before the attacks and contains some of the last recorded footage of the towers before they fell.
At the time the song felt somewhat bittersweet as it was a beautiful song, yet the lyrics carried these sad double-meanings because of September 11 and the video that accompanied it. But as time has gone by, the feeling I get when I listen to the song has changed; listening to it now, it feels more hopeful and reminds me of how time heals. While there is still a sadness to it I think, listening to it now, ten years on, the true character of the song has returned… rather like New York itself.
So I thought I’d post the song today as perhaps more than anything, this is the feeling I have now, ten years on, when I think about September 11… of sadness and reflection, of remembrance, but also of hope and life moving on, and for me this song represents that.
My thoughts and best wishes go out to all of my friends and everyone in the US on this difficult day. May we never forget. And to everyone who lost someone that day, and to everyone that survived, I hope you have begun to find peace.