Fifteen years ago, I was attending my second year at the University of Maine. The old Student Union was still being used (it took forever to get the new one built). I wound up there, later, watching along with scores of other students the unfolding events, but first there was breakfast.
I remember this so well: One of the dining hall workers came out and told us a plane had struck the World Trade Center. I had no idea that this was going to become one of the defining moments of my life. I figured, there had been an accident, and that was it. They switched the radio to news. They always played music. I remember listening, on another morning, a stupid DJ explaining Uncle Cracker's hit song, and later realizing, after I'd seen the video, that they were just explaining what the video was. That morning, though, the radio was tuned to something important.
Still, I reported to English class (Jennifer Moxley was always worth attending), but by the time French class came up, next, all I needed to know was that something definitely was happening, and I decided to skip the class (I never did figure out how to care about French class again), and head over to the Student Union, and there it was, the towers collapsing, New York City in chaos.
I went to my dorm room and wrote my parents an email. Later, I realized how insensitive this was, because my mother had desperately wanted to hear from all her kids. None of us knew what the scope of it was. Later we'd know about the Pentagon and United 93. The terrorists had actually flown through Maine. My three oldest siblings were all out of state, and so was my youngest. I was the only one still in Maine. None of us were flying that day. Still, anything could have become a target.
I started identifying myself as a poet, in the days and years after 9/11. For a while, every year on the anniversary, I would write a new piece to commemorate it. I took a poetry class in one of my final semesters, and already the gulf between what Americans think about 9/11 and the rest of the world, and I'm not talking about wars here, but the basic perception of the tragedy itself, was becoming evident. There was a visiting poet from Chile who dared talk about the Pinochet years, and the other students in the class ridiculed the thought that her tragedy could even compare to ours. I was outraged. This is the sort of thing we don't talk about, and it's terrifying. In a lot of ways, 9/11 made the United States horribly egocentric. None of us wanted to get defensive, but that's what everyone did. Since it was so self-contained, in some respects, 9/11 was easy to sweep under the rug. We went back to work, and promptly started isolating ourselves as never before, or at least, not since the days of westward expansion.
We entered the age of social media. This is ironic, coming from a blogger who started in 2002. In those innocent days, I never cared whether someone else would read what I wrote. Now the blogging community is obsessed with getting as many people to like it as possible. It sells books, right? But we're so busy promoting ourselves, our friends, we forget any kind of perspective. Perspective is what died on 9/11. In the days immediately following it, we were one big country, but then we splintered, and we've never looked back. I just don't get it.
This is not about patriotism, but about perspective. I'd heard about the Taliban, smashing Buddhist statues, before 9/11, and as someone who still mourns the long-ago destruction of the Library of Alexandria, it's because culture is very important to me. I don't get these terrorists, as they've continued to exist over the years. I think they're reactionaries. I think they're scared that the world's passed them by, and hate the fact that anyone else can define culture. I thought we might've gotten past that sort of thinking. Wasn't that called the Middle Ages? You know, the Dark Ages? But I guess not. But really, we're not much better. Everyone has an agenda now. We took what the '60s tried really hard to accomplish, and we've blown it up to ridiculous proportions. Everyone's shouting for equal attention, and no one's paying attention anymore. We chat about inane things, we argue politics, but we have no perspective.
Sitting in that dining hall, fifteen years ago, I had no perspective. I had no idea what was going on. Then, like everyone else, I had no choice. Then people started to choose otherwise. I really wish we could get back to a place where we care about things again, and quit hiding. Because you know what hiding does? It makes you crazy enough to think up something like 9/11.