I don’t normally tell personal stories on the blog, but I told this one yesterday at the panel yesterday, so I thought I’d repeat it here.
Ten years ago, I was a senior in high school, and more relevantly, preparing for my final year as a nationally competitive policy debater. The topic for the year was weapons of mass destruction, so I’d spent my summer reading journal articles about proliferation and clipping wild-eyed rhetoric from sketchy Asian newspapers in preparation for the twenty trips I’d take around the country to tournaments. On September 10, I won a practice debate round by convincing the judge that the risk of a major terrorist attack on the United States was not significant enough to be considered in a risk calculus.
On September 11, when someone told me that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center, I told them it must have been a hoax. I didn’t believe it until my English teacher came into class, panicked because she couldn’t reach her husband, who was on a Los Angeles-bound flight out of Logan in the same window as the hijacked planes. She eventually reached him. I spent the afternoon sitting next to one of my favorite teachers, who was trying to reach his brother, who worked in the World Trade Center. He turned out to be all right, but other people who worked at my high school lost friends and family on the planes, something we wouldn’t find out until later.
Less than two weeks later, I got on a plane out of Logan to fly to one of those debate tournaments. The serviceman stationed at the check-in gate made me call my doctor to fax the prescription for my Epi-Pen to the airport to prove that I actually needed to be carrying the medicine that could save my life in case of an allergy attack — everything could have been a weapon. The Boston Globe’s astonishing piece about the Logan workers who checked in the hijackers, who opened their luggage when it didn’t make the planes and discovered a terrible surprise, who live as little-discussed witnesses to the beginning of our national tragedy rather than its fiery conclusion, brought me to my knees as no other anniversary piece on September 11 has because this is how I experienced it, on the edge of the crisis, but not unaffected by it.
Michiko Kakutani asked, in a lead-up to this anniversary, whether our culture had changed. And thinking back to the time, I think one of the things that came as a blessed relief to me was that culture didn’t feel different, that we didn’t succumb to the notion that the end of irony would be a good thing. Has The Onion ever been better than in the weeks following September 11, 2001 when it provided a sad, irreverent commentary on the attacks? Modern Humorist’s “Kandahar Har Har” and monologues by fake Taliban stand-up Jai al-Leno were part of my rush to start thinking about Afghanistan as something other than an outline on a map — I read them along with Ahmed Rashid. On September 11, 2001 I had no notion that I would ever be a culture critic. But those reminders that culture mattered stuck with me, as did the power of being part of a mass event, no matter how terrible and involuntary, no matter how marginal my participation.