Monday, September 10, 2007

9/11: Six Years Later

For months after the hijacked jet liner ploughed into the west side of the Pentagon six years ago, try as I might, I could not avoid looking at the massive gash that had wounded this America icon. It was morbid but mesmerizing.

Six years later, driving by the Pentagon on Interstate 395 from Virginia into Washington, D.C., I still turn to look, eyes flitting over the facade, remembering. But now the walls are smooth again; the windows shiny. There is not a trace of the pulverized concrete, the shattered glass, the mangled plane, or the soot that stained the walls of America's defense head quarters for weeks after the 9/11 attack. From a distance, five years after it was rebuilt, nothing betrays the horror of that day - not even the newness of the edifice.

If only human beings were as easy to rebuild.

On TV, the woman walks across the swath of land across from this side of the Pentagon that is pock-marked with square slabs of concrete - 184 to be exact. The concrete slabs will eventually be a memorial to the 184 people who lost their lives that day. Cameras and reporters trail her. Some days are good, some days are bad, she says. The loss of her husband seems to have etched itself on her face. A man talks about his wife who died on the second day of her job which also happened to be her birthday.

In my neighborhood, the sapling planted to remember two of my fellow residents who died in the Pentagon that day is now a full-grown tree, standing strong and tall. Every so often, I see people on their daily runs or walks taking a breather under its lush, vibrant foliage.

This year, more than in the previous years, I read and see reports of people tiring of the incessant coverage of the 9/11 anniversary. For sure, there is the predictable news coverage of hunting down survivors and surviving families and checking up on them; ceremonies in which politicians give self-important speeches and read out "moving" poems; reporters tracking the progress of the various planned memorials and recounting the behind-the-scenes bickering about the plans and the funding; and article upon article about the war on terror and the interminable analyses of whether it has actually made America safer.

But the alternative - not talking about it at all - is as impractical as it is unthinkable.

For even someone who did not lose a loved one in the carnage of that day, it is impossible to escape the fact that, in many ways big and small, 9/11 inexorably changed our view of the world. There is something different in the air, as if someone grabbed the molecules and rearranged them.

Just driving into Washington, D.C. after a gap of three years of living in India is enough to bring on the sad realization that the city has changed even more than right after the attack. Where cars drove freely and parked freely, there are now lane closures and barricades every where you look. Unencumbered views of the monuments on the National Mall, all along Constitution Avenue, were the order of the day. No more. Ugly cement blocks and walls rise from the ground to mar the visual real estate. Long lines of people wait patiently to go through the security check to enter museums and federal buildings.

The staccato sounds of helicopters and steady drones of fighter jets, which earlier evoked thoughts of air shows or Presidential arrivals or departures now lead you to wonder what's going on. One day a couple of years after 9/11, as my son and I were coming out of the library in our neighborhood we noticed about four or five helicopters circling the area. It was disconcerting to say the least. I saw a police car parked outside the library and I asked one of the officers what was going on. He smiled broadly and said it was, perhaps, just a military exercise. He ducked into his car and fished out a coupon for ice creams and gave them to my son. Enjoy, he said. May be he saw the concern on my face and felt sorry.

The clear blue September skies and the crisp, slightly chilly air of the beginning of autumn in this part of world are themselves enough to evoke memories of where I was that day and what I was doing. Enough to remind me of the panic of not having either my husband or my son at home; of seeing the second plane ramming into the second tower on live television; of hearing the loud thud of the plane hitting the Pentagon and feeling the house shake and my windows rattle; of seeing my neighbors coming back home from work at the Pentagon, shaken and unable to eat for days; of not knowing what was going on, but knowing, by the time the fourth plane hit the field in Pennsylvania, that whatever this was, it was relentless.

When loved ones get on a plane to fly these days I notice that I unwittingly keep an eye on the news. I think twice about my husband and I leaving the children at home with a babysitter and going out by ourselves even for a couple hours. What if?

I can only imagine what someone who lived through 9/11 and felt its impact more closely than I did must go through every year. After all, memories don't have sell-by dates. What must they feel when personal events or external goings-on trigger flashbacks? What do they remember when Osama Bin Laden comes on the airwaves, well groomed (I wonder if he used plain old boot polish or an American brand of hair dye that promised to last through twenty-four shampoos and provide complete gray coverage) and obviously aware of world events? What must they do when memories come unbidden and demand to be countenanced?

Image Courtesy: The Pentagon Memorial Site

Update:

Sepia Munity on 9/11

12 comments:

Desigirl said...

Know what? I was just typing a letter to the school when I noted the date and was taken aback. 9/11? Really? 6 years on?? I remember watching it enfold on TV and the mind-numbing terror I felt, though I was a gazillion miles away from NYC. I just read your post on 'where you were then' - boy oh boy! Will September 11 ever be ordinary again?

Tharini said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Tharini said...

Was chilled to my bones reading this. You're right...life has changed forever after 9/11. Can't find the words to write anything more that I feel.

PS - Just wanted to let u know that there is a tag waiting for u to pick up. Hope you'll wanna do it.

timepass said...

I can imagine the tension and trauma gone through by people till they found that their loved ones are safe.

Kowsalya Subramanian said...

I linked your post here
http://kathambamaalai.wordpress.com/2007/09/12/911-six-years-later/

Hope its ok.

Crazyfinger said...

Thanks for writing this. Even now I cannot see a moving image of a plane next to a bunch of tall buildings without an ugly, repelling feeling churning in my stomach.

I was going to fly on 9/11 from Chicago to Ottawa (I had flew in to Chicago (from SFO) on 9/9, I think it was a Sunday night, on business). Checked out of my room early morning about 8am, came down to lobby and at first didn't really think much of people huddling in front of television. Obviously I didn't fly that day, and drove home in the same rental car.

Driving from Chicago to bay area, I-80 was dead quiet all through Nebraska, Utah...etc. Throughout the day, being away from loved ones, I never felt so lonely and scared in my life as I did on that day. Feelings of love, wanting to go home, to family, to everything that is familiar...I think in a lot of ways that day brought out a sense of what is important in life to the fore permanently. Sharing is now the lifeblood. I hope it never stops.

Regards, Crazyfinger

Sujatha said...

DG, I'm not really sure I want it to be as of old again.

T, thanks for your comment. And thanks for the tag as well. Looking forward to doing it.

TP, I agree.

Kowsalya, of course. Thanks for the linl

Crazyfinger, thank you for sharing your story. I can just imagine how lonely and terrifying it must have been to be driving all that distance and wanting desperately to get home, not knowing what was coming next. Best wishes to you.

Anonymous said...

I am not sure why indians dont remember Mumbai blasts with same grief? IT was equally deadly,but never saw many indians blogging the event as they do for 911.Some tragedies seem more painful than others in this world.

Sujatha said...

Anon, your line of reasoning is tiresome.

I did write about the Mumbai blasts but not a personal account of it simply because I was not there when it happened. I wrote about the TV coverage of the Mumbai blasts, about how to get help if you are trying to reach your family but can't and also about how Indian cola blogs are helping people connect in times of tragedy.

I write personal accounts about 9/11 and about remembering it every year because I was here when it happened.

If that doesn't work for you, you are free not come to my blog and read my writing.

When you have a more original thought than your comment on this post, do feel free to share. Thank you very much for reading.

bird's eye view said...

Sujatha,

As I was reading your post on 9/11, I started to wonder why we in India don't seem to remember the various terrorist attacks and their impacts with as much emotion. It's really strange - I live in Delhi, and Sarojini Nagar is a popular market which I do visit from time to time. The pre-Diwali blasts of 2 years back, however, while they did scare people off for a while are now completely in the past as if they had never happened, and Sarojini Nagar market remains as crowded and packed as ever. I moved out of Bombay a day before the bomb blasts, and my office and my residence were both areas that were hit so I could have been a victim had I been in the city. I was in the city during the riots post Dec 6, 1992. But somehow it doesn't really play on my mind when I visit those parts of bombay now.

I don't know whether it's just because people are too busy in the here and now to think about yesterday.

It actually goes against our cultural tradition which says that your current birth and life state is a result of what you did in the past - somewhere you'd expect that to lead to a greater appreciation of the past, be it the distant historic past or the more recent 5-10 years ago.

Sujatha said...

BEV, any analysis of that on my part is bound to sound (rhyme!) like psychobabble. It is a question for the historians, the sociologists, the psychologists.

For what it's worth, we all remember because there is a framework here that enables the reliving of 9/11 in our memories. There are memorials, events, news coverage, etc. that force you to stop, think and remember. You also don't forget because everywhere you look there are security features in place now that were non-existent before for preventing the 9/11 sort of attack. In India it's just not possible to do that - to secure every open area, every train station, etc. So in order to move on, we all forget and I'm sure the powers that be would rather have us forget.

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