In something of a 9/11 ritual for me, I spent some time this morning searching the Internet for two moments I remember vividly from that day in 2011. Both are from the 15 to 30 minutes or so that have been truncated in every video I’ve found, as people trapped in the buildings jumped or fell to their deaths. Even if the footage is out there, somewhere, there’s only so much one can watch at a time.
The first moment involves an impression I’ve wanted to check since the moment after it moved off my television screen. (In those days, you couldn’t rewind live TV or go online to watch everything again on-demand.) It looked to me like one of the people jumping out of the Twin Towers attempted to hold a shirt or something above his head as if it would function as a parachute.
It was such a human moment. How many children have imagined doing something like that? How horrible is the contrast between testing the physics off your back porch and having nothing to lose by trying it from the top of a skyscraper? The second after the attempt had failed and the screen had moved on to something else, I wondered if I’d really seen it.
The other moment for which I’ve been searching was intrinsically human, too, although in a more-hopeful way. A black woman staring up in horror sobbed, “They’s jumping.” In that moment, the idea of any racial distance between the woman and those she was watching seemed ludicrous.
This year, 9/11 feels different, somehow. The echo of that morning’s feelings is still there, but the world has gone off the rails. It’s 2020.
We’ve watched months of riots after years of racialist rhetoric insisting that everything is about race and everybody should be required to behave accordingly. When a University of Rhode Island history professor openly states that killing political opponents is morally justified, it isn’t difficult to imagine what such people would say watching their countrymen plunge to their deaths from the tip-top of a capitalist icon.
The notion rightly makes one angry. I’m 45 now, and anger is tiring. The child whom my wife and I were awaiting in Autumn 2001 is now off to college. Can’t life just be life again?
One of the more-famous characterizations of the movement that carried Donald Trump into the presidency was that it was a “Flight 93 election.” Just as passengers on that flight chose to fight back against the terrorists who hijacked it because they were headed toward an attack, rather than a hostage situation, the electorate had to storm the cockpit of our government and try to change its trajectory.
Nobody charged the cabin on Flight 11, which was the first to crash that morning, because hijackings were usually exercises in hostage-taking, and the odds of survival of such ordeals were high, at least compared with attempting to fight. Lately, it seems as if the answer to the question — “Can’t life just be life again?” — seems to be, “As soon as you meet our demands.”
In a way much more direct than a few years ago, we seem to actually face that decision. Yes, we can choose to give in and hope things go back to something like normal, at least for a while. Unlike a hostage-taking, however, even the promise of meeting the demands isn’t there. Our family or company or nation can’t hand over some money and get us back to our homes. The demand itself is fundamental change to how we live.
More and more, therefore, “never forget” must be paired with “never surrender.” There is no way back to normal life until that is thoroughly understood.