I was in high school on 9/11, and I remember it in the context of a major unraveling.
My parents divorced; teachers got busted for assaulting students; school shootings were becoming standard. Later, everything my father and George Carlin had been saying about the Catholic Church was revealed to be true.
I’d come to believe that these occasions illustrated the reality I’d always suspected was true — the systems of authority I’d been otherwise encouraged to trust were hollow and flimsy, built upon a rickety foundation. I used to think these conclusions were exclusive to my experiences, but of course they weren’t.
This is, I guess, what we learn in the trial by fire that is high school. As we enter adulthood, we sort through how we want to reconcile this reality. Do we double down on belief in this authority or do we commit to questioning its validity?
Then, of course, the 9/11 attacks happened — the day on which the entire myth of American might and supremacy was challenged and undone, the day on which every one of these confirmed suspicions felt like my only reality. I had known American supremacy and leadership through might to be clumsy concepts — more dogmatic than rational — but if my skepticism of those concepts had come to dominate my teenage years, the fall of the towers and the terror that accompanied the spectacle were theory entering reality.
Our age of security, of comfortable global supremacy, had come to an end. Try as some might 15 years on, we can’t will it back into existence.
In the same breath of our gasps of horror at 9/11, I recall the demands for revenge, ploys for bad policy, justifications of xenophobia and racism. I remember, a few short years later, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani selling a presidential candidacy based upon the foreign policy blunders that followed that day.
Those memories, in many ways, marked the birth of my conceptual adulthood and the validation of everything I had previously, smugly, and in an adolescent way, cheaply believed to be true. Everything we’d been taught to believe, embrace and take for granted — the nearly utopian last decade of the 20th century — was lived on borrowed time.
This was the start of our new era.
Earlier this year I visited the 9/11 Memorial Museum at Ground Zero, which is like standing in the crater that wiped away my teenage beforehand. I stood there, looking up and imagining the terrible reality that unfolded there; imagining the terrible reality our own policies have brought to countless other lands, either intentionally or inadvertently; imagining the heat, seeing the twisted metal, trying not to hyperventilate and run away.
Later, I walked uptown a handful of blocks, finally making it to Murray Street, which seems far away when you consider that debris from the planes landed on the tops of buildings there. They’re still finding plane debris in alleys. The immensity of the physical reality matched the psychic, intellectual and emotional immensity of the event, even though I have no personal relationship to the tragedy in that none of my people were lost in those terrifying hours.
I used to think it cheap to commemorate 9/11 at this time of year. 9/11! The horror! Let us never forget!
But I can’t escape the fact that 9/11 is at the root of almost everything in my adulthood, and I know I am not alone. It is the psychic birthplace of my adulthood — every fear, and every concept of reality, cynical or otherwise — was confirmed to be real.
The anniversary of 9/11, of course, is also a time when countless stories of heroism, which help to dampen the horror, are told. We hold those stories dear but, like birth, they represent trauma. No matter how nice the doctors are, the experience leaves an inevitability that we will try to understand, live with, and sort out until we are forced to take our leave of this place.
Alex Steed has written about and engaged in politics since he was a teenager. He’s an owner-partner of a Portland-based content production company and lives with his family, dogs and garden in Cornish.