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
Sepia Munity on 9/11