Blog of a Patriot Coward: Where I Was, Where I Am, Where I Might Be
I don’t watch TV on 9/11. Partly, it’s because I can’t take another replay that tears open grief, fear and love for people I didn’t know. Partly, it’s because I don’t want the barrage of footage to detract from my own memories of that day. News ruins memory. We layer, unknowingly, images and video played over countless hours and years, onto our own original track, until we “remember” seeing, watching, hearing the entirety of those horrors.
What I really remember, which is as close to truth as I can get, having watched the footage for several days and then not again for the past eleven years, is this…
Where I was…September 11, 2001
I worked in an office building called Twin Towers—a four-story structure in a Pittsburgh suburb. We bought and sold raw materials for the chemical and steel industries. I was Customer Service Manager. Nothing heroic. I remember hating, after that day, that our office building was called Twin Towers. What was once a cliché name for any paired buildings like ours became taboo, became a way to thieve drama from someone else’s reality.
Calls came into the office urging us to get to a television. A plane had flown into the World Trade Center. We thought it was an accident. Everyone crowded into the conference room and we watched on our clunky analog TV as a plane flew into the second tower.
In the office, we watch the plane fly into the second tower. In the office, we watch the plane fly into the second tower. I will replay this in my mind more often than they ever can on television.
That morning, we also heard about a plane somewhere over Pennsylvania. We heard that one flew into the Pentagon. I thought, (as we watched the television, heard about the Pentagon plane, heard about the plane over Pennsylvania) I thought about the people, the hijackers, and we talked about our air force jets, rushing to shoot it down. Was this a thought brought to us by television, or did we come to that conclusion on our own?
I remember wondering if it took off from Pittsburgh, because somehow it mattered. Is it because there might have been locals on the plane? Is it because it meant our airport isn’t secure? We heard about a plane somewhere over Pennsylvania and I thought about how some boy in a flight suit would have to shoot civilians from the sky.
In this office, where I played a management role, I tried not to overreact. I thought I must not overreact. I cried at commercials and movies, but this… This forced stoicism, distance. I was in a movie, playing the part of manager, of employee, of level-headed woman. This was not real.
Where I Am…September 11, 2012
I have actively avoided the news showing the events for 11 years. I watched it so obsessively immediately afterward that I had become terrorized by information, by visuals that burn into your mind in a dirty and violent way. I was like a child memorizing a new layer of existence and understanding.
The images embedded themselves, replaying like the time I saw a kitten run over by a car as it crossed the street to greet me, like the first time I saw a woman spread-eagle on a Hustler calendar, like the first time I saw a dead body, like the first time I watched someone die.
Now I was expected to watch thousands die and have those images analyzed, hear the grief and terror and empty voices of survivors, spouses, witnesses.
No, I can’t watch or hear or read about it anymore, although getting my daily news means being forced to see headlines and occasional images. I know I’m not “normal” in this regard. I keep my eyes straight ahead when I pass an accident. Seeing someone else’s suffering, grief, despair feels invasive and violating; a boundary I wouldn’t want crossed in my own struggle to allow only my happiness to be external.
It doesn’t mean I don’t remember, because nobody who was alive in America that day can ever forget. I am a Patriot, in the way that I believe in patriotism. I don’t believe patriotism requires watching and re-watching a scene in which we know someone’s father, mother, sister, brother, aunt, child is falling or jumping to their death, is praying to God to make it fast, to protect their family, to spare their life.
Not watching lets me grieve in private. It allows me to think about it humbly and cloistered, without the pomp of politicians or the agenda of any one organization, without the clamoring of citizens who weren’t there, had no affiliation, trying to show they are a better patriot than most.
I remember wanting to participate last year in the 10-year memorial for Flight 93. Daughters of the American Revolution were planning to participate. In D.A.R., members trace their ancestry to one or more “Patriots”—someone who participated in securing the nation’s freedom in the Revolutionary War. It isn’t always a soldier, because there were many ways in which a person could be a patriot.
I believe there are still many ways a person can be a patriot. I changed my mind about attending the memorial last year. I couldn’t bring myself to be part of what I saw as spectacle instead of memorial. And I realized I am not comfortable with public, or collective, grief.
The flaw is mine, I know. In not watching, I separate myself from a shared moment with America. The way most people heal is by remembering, honoring, celebrating lives of the heroes of that day.
I would not have been a hero. Maybe this is why I can’t watch. Maybe it’s because I know that I would have cowered, would have begged for mercy, would have prayed for a spared life. I would never have been a person who said “Let’s roll.”
I remember another thing from the days after 9/11. I remember hearing people talking about how our attitude toward terrorists had changed. We would no longer obey the rules and be good hostages. We would rise up and challenge. I heard men and women talking about what they would have done, how they would prepare if it happened again.
This is another scene that runs through my mind when the images from 11 years ago return to my mind. I think we’ve all imagined ourselves on one of those planes, in one of those towers. It’s a natural response to create a life-and-death scenario. These are the instincts which keep us prepared and alive.
I wanted to be a different and better person after 9/11. I wanted to believe I would be the type of person who would be a hero.
I’m not. I’m still the type of person who would cower, beg, pray. It’s strange to imagine myself having come from any type of patriot ancestor. I have six patriots from the Revolutionary War. I have ancestors who fought in The War of 1812, in the Civil War, in World Wars I and II. My father was in the Cuban Blockade.
I am a coward.
Where I Might Be…Maybe
I’d like to say analyzing these things about myself and coming to the revelation that I am spineless would change me. I’d like to believe that when the scene is laid bare and I am in a cornered position, some previously unknown strength might surface. What gives me hope, keeps me from feeling like a total failure of humanity is the “Maybe.”
Maybe I would run toward instead of away. Maybe I would stand up instead of cowering. Maybe I would pray for strength or resolve instead of mercy. Because I actually don’t know what person I might be until faced with something beyond what I think is my capacity.
And maybe that’s the good that comes from watching the memorials: “Hope” that we ourselves could be something stronger than we are; “Inspiration” from those heroes to be brave, be self-sacrificing, be beyond our perceived weakness; “Unity” that in collective grief, a shared memorial, we move beyond red and blue to just being a big dysfunctional family again.
So “Maybe” it’s time to turn on the TV again, to start layering my freeze-frame with stories of character I can aspire to obtain.
I still don’t believe patriotism requires the watching of 9/11 events every year, any more than it’s my duty to watch a train wreck or rubberneck at an accident. But I also realize that it’s because I’ve focused on the obligation, the sensationalism and the disgusting opportunism of celebrities and politicians to position themselves with 9/11 that I don’t want to watch.
But I do believe in the firemen, the policemen, the office workers, the plane travelers, and the volunteers who worked, fought, and died more heroically than my own character can conceive.
And for them I think I can turn on the TV again.