In the week leading up to the tenth commemoration of 9/11, personal reflections and media articles about victims, survivors, and post-traumatic stress have been plentiful. New York City is preparing to host a special ceremony at Ground Zero to pay tribute to those who lost their lives when terrorist hijackers intentionally crashed two airplanes into the World Trade Center as part of a series of four coordinated suicide attacks by al-Qaeda.
Officials are hoping to accommodate as many people as possible while dealing with security logistics surrounding the presence of President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama. The giant media conglomerate, Time Warner, has taken on the task of creating synergy between various media outlets for a special news coverage. Time Magazine will publish a special commemorative issue that will appear with an hour-long television program containing interviews with dignitaries like George W. Bush, Donald Rumsfeld, Rudolph W. Giuliani, and others.
According to The New York Times, the White House has issued directives to local government officials as well as all American embassies, consulates, and other overseas allies with the intention to “shape public events and official statements” in order to “present a positive, forward-looking narrative.” Consideration is given to the fact that 9/11 is not “just about us”—citizens of more than 90 countries were amongst the victims. As per President Obama: “this year’s anniversary will be one of ‘service and remembrance.’”
My commemoration, then and now: There was no way for the ordinary public, and quite rightly so, to get anywhere near the ghostly remains of the World Trade Center where the frantic search and rescue operations were playing out. We walked as far as we were allowed, constantly passing dust-covered rescue workers coming off their shift. The streets were lined with people, some with an aimless air about them, others with determined hope etched in their faces. At the security barricade we stood quietly, watching and listening—and that was our tribute: consciously sharing the tragic atmosphere. (an excerpt from my memoir: Out of Sync)
I wonder how, and if, the world will ever forget that day. Moreover, in view of terrorism in general, will the world ever again be at peace? As it stands, the mentioned White House directives apparently include an advisory—Americans must be prepared and resilient given that future attacks are not ruled out.
We might not know what our future holds, but one thing is for sure—we are all still asking, “Where were you when it happened?” Relocating from South Africa so that my husband, Bruce, could take up a professional opportunity in San Francisco, we arrived at JFK International Airport minutes before the first plane hit the World Trade Center. Having missed our connecting flight to San Francisco as a result, I was watching black smoke billowing out of the North Tower on the horizon, when I noticed an airplane in the sky some distance beyond the burning building. I assumed it was coming in to land at one of the airports, though its close proximity to an obvious hazard seemed beyond foolish. In a creepy way, the plane disappeared from view for just a moment before it smashed into the South Tower. Next, I was staring at a ball of fire. Not only did the collapsing Towers emerge as a disquieting symbol of an uncertain future, the event also marked an abrupt end to our honeymoon; we’d only been married a few weeks.
There have been many stories written about 9/11, including in Dick Cheney’s newly published memoir: In My Time. In an interview on MSNBC’s Today show, he said, “We were living in the fog of war.” I, too, have written a memoir—Out of Sync—though my book (still awaiting a publisher) focuses more on our ten-year expatriation that flip-flopped between the political and economic uncertainties in post-apartheid South Africa and post-9/11 America. Although we had never intended to emigrate, Bruce and I recently became American citizens. There is no telling whether 9/11 played a part in our momentous decision; even though we had felt the classic outsiders’ detachment to the political sentiments expressed in the months immediately following it, our intimate brush with those horrific events certainly created an emotional connection with this new place and its people.
For a long time, I could not write about our experience. In one way it felt as if the trauma had immobilized my common sense and, in another, had activated my defense mechanism. Although I experienced the typical disbelief, anger, and anxiety, I did not suffer other symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder like insomnia, sadness, fear, and depression. Not then; those gremlins would only haunt me later. But feelings of confusion ran high. For instance, in the first year of our stay in San Francisco, I lost my purse more times than I care to remember, usually leaving it behind in a restaurant or movie theatre. I always retrieved it, though, which was one of those fantastical things that could (to our South African mindsets) only be possible in America. At home, women had long ago abandoned accessories like purses and jewelry, because they could be snatched from you anywhere, anytime.
We finally made our connecting flight to San Francisco the next Sunday afternoon, the 16th of September. I remember vividly my immense relief to be getting away from it all, as well as a protective numbness that had wrapped itself around me like a security blanket. After boarding the airplane, there was a long wait while the staff checked this, that, and everything. Then, moments before take-off, two airport police officers came into the aircraft and escorted a young man of Middle Eastern origin out—a while later, he returned looking suitably agitated. I reckon that was when we all realized the national crisis was far from over. I don’t think anybody slept for the duration of that five-hour flight.
I knew we’d never forget the collective experience of such large-scale distress—an unsuspecting world thrust into free-fall. Yet, for a long time I could not recall the exact details of that week. It would only be many years later when I broke through the blocked emotions during a holistic massage therapy treatment. As the ethereal flute tunes and sweet smell of aromatherapy oils filled the air, my muscles relaxed in the healing hands of the therapist. Next, it felt like my mind separated from my body and floated back to that horrific day of our arrival in the country. I started sobbing. The therapist just stood back, saying, “Let go; let it all out.” When I shared my experience, she said, “I see it all the time—the release of post-traumatic stress from 9/11.” (an excerpt from my memoir: Out of Sync)
On May 2, 2011, President Obama announced, “Tonight, I can report to the American people and to the world that the United States has conducted an operation that killed Osama bin Laden, the leader of al Qaeda, and a terrorist who’s responsible for the murder of thousands of innocent men, women, and children.” For some people the news rang of justice, while others immediately started speculating about retaliation.
I hope the doomsayers are wrong: I want to believe the world can again be at peace—a place where we can all live and work without the constant fear of economies collapsing or communities being denigrated or individuals being robbed, maimed, or killed. I believe the best tribute people can pay to those who have lost their lives in the history of manmade disasters, is to join forces in the spirit of forgiveness and with confidence that harmony will triumph over violence.
If you have a 9/11 story you’d like to share, please feel free to leave a comment.