I don’t think I’ll ever forget 9/11. In 2001 I had just turned 11. I woke up for a day at school and walked out into the lounge room to find my parents sitting transfixed, staring at the TV. My Mum had this blank look on her face. She was resting her face in her hands, like it was the only way she could hold up her own head.
“Somebody bombed New York.”
The night before, Mum had gotten home late from a meeting. Dad was already asleep. She switched on the TV while she was getting ready to go to bed. It would have been 11pm here when she did. The north tower had just been hit.
Mum and Dad didn’t sleep that night.
Mum said she saw the plane hit the second tower as she watched on TV.
I was 11, and of course didn’t really know what it all meant. I honestly can’t remember much. I don’t remember the images, or watching it on TV, or the newspaper headlines, or most of the TV news bulletins. What I remember is going to school and talking about it.
I remember my Mum saying “we’re going to war over this.”
I was in year 5 at Balarang Public School. My classmates were by no means the most politically-savvy or globally-conscious group of people in the world. Aside from the day Donald Bradman died, a few months earlier in February 2001, this was the only time I ever remember current news events being part of the schoolyard conversation. We’d all woken up, had breakfast, brushed our teeth and got into our school uniforms that morning, and the bombing of some buildings we didn’t know about in a city we’d never visited wasn’t high on the agenda of things to learn about that morning on the TV newscasts between breakfast and brushing and dressing. Nobody really knew what was happening, or why it was happening – or really even where it was happening – or what effect it would have on us in the weeks and months and years to come. But we talked about it, in the far away and abstract disconnected terms that 11-year-olds at a public school in regional Australia on a Wednesday morning are wont to do.
“Did you see the planes?”
“Who did it?”
“Man it was so crazy, my mum is really worried”
“What’s a world trade centre?”
I can’t remember if there was anything official at school that day. No doubt there was – an assembly or a loudspeaker announcement or a talk from the teacher at the start of the day.
Everyone talks about change as a gradual thing. Like it creeps up on you, and by the time you notice something is moving, it’s already happened. This was different. Everyone knew the world had changed. From the instant we all saw the first image of the first plane hitting the first tower, everyone knew the world had changed.
I remember the “WAR ON TERROR” banners start to pop up on TV news bulletins and breaking news desks and evening reports. I remember the networks started extra news bulletins at 4pm or 5pm, before their regular 6pm news, as the world started talking about war and invasion and occupation and terrorists. I remember the word “terrorist” come into my vocabulary.
I don’t remember seeing George W Bush anywhere, at least not at first. Then I remember George W Bush coming into my lexicon and onto my TV screens.
Everything happened so fast.
I went to the 9/11 memorial in New York at the end of July last year. Before going to the States, I’d never really thought about going to it. I never even really knew about it, that it was there, or what it really was about. But as soon as I entered New York City, I knew I had to go there. I was going to go alone, but I ended up going with a very pretty Canadian girl from my hostel who gave me an amazing cupcake as an apology because we were supposed to meet at the New York City Library and she was late.
We went to the memorial together. We lined up for tickets and lined up to get in the front gate then lined up around the corner and around the hoarding for the new One World Trade Centre that was being built next to the site. And we walked in and even after a year I still can’t quite put my thoughts and feelings about the place into words.
I remember writing later that I was happy with how stark and no-frills it was. Americans love to make a big deal out of memorials – the Alamo and the entire Alamo-related industry of souvenirs and memorabilia come to mind – but this was so plain. So simple. Neat. There’s no big flashing lights or tourist centres (on the site, anyway – the tourist centre is a way up the road) or brochures or information signs. There is a plain beautiful garden of grass and trees dotted around the two monumental reflecting pools lined with the names of the dead etched into the metal. In a city the size of New York, it is peaceful. Hundreds of people mill about in silence. People don’t talk. They just look, and think. People cry. Eleven years on (at that point) and people still cry. There are people who no doubt lost family and friends in the attacks who go there often, but more precisely it is tourists who cry. People from every background and heritage and culture imaginable assemble there, and they cry.
It’s not for the loss of life itself, though that is part of it. They cry for the tremors that the attacks sent through the world, the reverberations that still emanate and influence almost every conceivable part of society from warning labels to transport security to oil prices to Middle East conflict to the entertainment industry to politics. They cry for the fact that the world shifted on its axis that day twelve years ago in New York. They cry because the world still hasn’t righted itself yet. They cry because this wasn’t supposed to happen.