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Sept. 11 – a different kind of day

U.S.A. flag and Chile flag with plane

For 21 years, September 11th has always been a different kind of day for me. For the first two years, it was an exciting kind of different. Then in 2001 it became a confusing kind of different. In 2012 it became a conflicting kind of different. 

September 11, 2001

On that day, my reactions were not what my peers were. It started when the bell rang at 08:49, marking the end of second period. The halls carried more energy than usually created by hundreds of footsteps shuffling across tile floors, boisterous complaints about unfair grades and excitement about football games, all frequently punctuated with the clank of locker doors being slammed shut. Used to the daily clamor, and assuming the uptick in noise was due to the latest high school melodrama (breakups or sports) I made my way to my locker, contentedly lost in my own thoughts. As I swapped my notebooks and textbooks out for the next period, a pubescent male voice shouted above the rest, “We’re all moving to Canada! They’re gonna draft us! Let’s drive to Canada.”

You’d think the “Draft” part of that statement would have been the shocking part. Would have clued me in there was a national emergency occurring, but it wasn’t, and it didn’t. My suburban high school cohort thought going 40 miles south into The City was unconscionable. Let alone crossing stateliness to go to Cleveland – why would you want to do that?! Some would bravely venture north to Lake Erie in the summer but they would never have considered crossing the lake into the wilds of Canada. My desire to explore the world beyond the 50 mile radius of our school district (literally divided into “rich” and “poor” by railroad tracks) was what alienated me from my peers since the day I arrived from Iowa in the 6th grade. I brushed off the “Draft” comment as ‘normal’ teenage boy ridiculousness and hugged my notebook, textbook and planner as I made my way towards Study Hall.

The puzzle pieces started to fall together.

As I opened the glass door into the cafeteria and saw a large gaggle of students gathered around my out of the way corner table shared with just two others. The usual echoing shuffle and chatter of students cutting through the cafeteria to their next class was eerily absent inside the expansive room. And the TV mounted above our table was on. Other than our 07:15 homeroom/1st Period announcements, the TV had never been on during the school day. I silently walked over and joined the gaggle. Following their lead, I glued my eyes to the TV just before AA175 crashed into the South Tower.

For the next 50 minutes we watched with only murmurs of “is this real?” and “oh my god” breaking the silence in the room so as not to miss anything said on the news and we tried to process what we saw unfolding on that small screen hanging in the corner. While we studied the screen that period, instead of our books, we had no way of knowing UA93 had flown over us; still on course for San Francisco only to be hijacked in dreaded Ohio, making a U-turn and heading back east. And we didn’t know it had crashed just 88 miles southeast of us because that would happen as we were all making our way to 4th period. 

The bell rang to announce the end of the 3rd period and auto-pilot kicked in. My feet moved for the first time since I arrived at my position in front of the TV 55 minutes before. I robotically retraced the steps back to my locker. I don’t know if the halls were quiet or I just didn’t hear anything being said. Upon arrival, my locker neighbor greeted me with a nonchalant, “Hey.”

“It fell. It just fell down.”

Those were my first and only words in an hour. I didn’t know what else to say. I stood there, still hugging my notebook, textbook and planner stack, which hadn’t moved since I left my last locker visit. He didn’t respond. He just kept pulling his stuff from his locker as he looked at me a bit confused. His only reaction was a shrug before slamming the door shut and heading off to class. I didn’t bother opening my locker to swap by books, I just went to my next class.

Spanish was my last period of the day. By then, I had processed everything that had happened. In an abnormal turn, I kept my thoughts to myself. Spanish class was one of my refuges in high school because of my teacher, a Jewish woman from Barcelona.  I felt her worldly experience would make her reaction to the day more similar to my non-standard one in a school where everyone else was freaking out and saying, ‘oh my god, how did this happen us?’ 

My reaction was, ‘Welcome to the rest of the world’s normal. Now you know how it feels to live everywhere else but here where we enjoy the comfortable privilege of safety.’ I had spent the previous year living in Spain on a foreign exchange at the age of 15 and 16 years. The news regularly talked of car bombings. One of my classmates told me his mum had to look under her car each morning for bombs because she worked at the local jurisdictional government building. She wasn’t the President, she wasn’t even the Mayor. She was a secretary and had worry about her safety daily. My foreign exchange in Spain taught me many things about the world. It also taught me a lot about my home country.

So, my reaction to 9/11 was unique.

I was devastated by the loss of life and scared, wondering if or when another attack would occur. Like many people, in the following days and weeks I spent hours in front of the TV, watching the news. I was waiting for that movie moment. The one when the evil villain’s face interrupts the programming and he explains and make his demands. That moment never came. What I didn’t feel that day on 9/11 was the “Woe is us. We’re the only ones this has ever happened to,” mentality my peers, elders and the nation seemed to have adopted. A majority of the world had been living with this same fear and uncertainty for decades. They managed to still go on and we could, too. Fear wasn’t going to keep me from living and building my life. Even if everyone around me chose to live in defense, in fear.

I wasn’t naïve enough to think the comfortable safety we had lived in for decades was a fluke and came at no cost. I also knew I had a duty to give back, to do my part to help make sure we rebuilt and maintained that unique safety for generations to come. That understanding guided my career choices and impacted the way I moved about the world (which was primarily around Europe) for the next decade. While I may have known ‘freedom didn’t come free,’ my views on our government and military actions as always nobly taken in the pursuit of democracy and freedom were very naïve. And I came face to face with that in a very public way. 

In 2012, I got to experience Santiago, Chile as an insider.

I spent three weeks at my best friend’s place tagging along with her daily goings on. Occasionally, that included a museum visit since her work focuses on cultural heritage management. Since my first trip that April, I usually tell people Chile is terrible and they shouldn’t visit. But that’s only because I fell in love with the place and the culture. I don’t want bad tourist to ruin Chile for Instagram posts and bragging rights like they have so many places. (Rome, Paris, Tulum, etc. The list is long.) While my dislike of self-centered American tourists is universally true, it’s especially strong when it comes to Chile. Our country has inflicted enough un-provoked damage on them, we really shouldn’t cause anymore. But I didn’t know any of that before I arrived that April. 

The trust and faith I had in my country, in those that gave orders to our troops – my friends and family – being sent into battle in the name of defending democracy and freedom, crumbled under my feet that April. It was a good thing I was sitting on a cold, hard bench when the final pulverizing blow was dealt by my friend. We were on the second floor of the Museum of Memory and Human Rights. I had just finished watching a documentary on a faux-1970’s stylized TV. The museum’s purpose is to “commemorate the victims of human rights violations during the civic-military regime led by Augusto Pinochet between 1973 and 1990.” Pinochet was a terrible dictator. Under his reign more than 3,000 people were “disappeared.” He was a bad dude. 

Dictators were ‘bad.’

They were threats to democracy. And the reason my country had been embroiled in war for over a decade. We sent thousands of troops to the desert. When they did come home, they brought physical and mental scars that will plague them for life. Kicked-off by the terrorist attacks September 11, 2001, all that devastation was done to remove vicious dictators and regimes committing atrocities in the Middle East like Pinochet had in Chilé.

Coincidentally, or maybe not, Pinochet’s reign of terror also kicked-off on 9/11. However, in 1973, instead of the U.S. being on the receiving end of the blows, it was on the dealing end. The Nixon administration facilitated the military coup d’état which put General Pinochet in power, ending decades of political stability. Until that fateful day, Chile had been a beacon of democracy in a region of the world plague by military juntas and instability. When I asked my friend what Chilean’s thought of the U.S. 9/11 she replied, “Karma’s a bitch.” I can’t say I disagree. 

What I learned that day shifted how I view a lot of things. For 364 days of the year, that’s all fine and dandy. New perspectives are fantastic and help me make better contributions to the world at large. But once a year, on 9/11, my brain and emotions go to war. Especially when I’m actually in the United States. (I try to fly or already be traveling somewhere every year on 9/11 just on principle.)

On one hand I want to be joyful.

I want to celebrate my sister’s birthday and be grateful for yet another year with her in my life. Since 2001, it always feels a little wrong to celebrate. To be happy on a day when everyone around the country is somberly remembering that day as well as the friends and loved ones lost in the war that followed. Holding space for joy and mourning at the same time was a challenge. It felt a lot like riding an old rickety wooden rollercoaster for 18 hours. In 2012, guilt, betrayal and anger were added to the space. It became a rollercoaster from hell. Incredible highs that dropped drastically then launched into loopy loops and spins and whirls. It makes me want to scream and puke and laugh all at once.

I don’t wake up on the rollercoaster every 9/11. I was able to sort out what sets off the rollercoaster war of emotions. Which has been helpful to keep me from stumbling around dizzy, emotionally vomiting angry and insensitive retorts at unsuspecting people. The ‘trigger’ is when comments, remembrances, and tributes of pride and honour for our service members turn into expressions of blind patriotism. Declarations of our superiority and infallibility as a nation. When 9/11 remembrances devolve into that, I find myself wanting to angrily reply in all caps “karma’s a bitch,” with a link to the BBC’s 2003 Chile – The Other 9/11 video. Because let’s be real, no one will take anything away from a written educational rant on social media or a work chat. Plus, if I learned nothing else in 7th grade, catchy hippy musical soundtracks are helpful when learning about military atrocities.

This year, 9/11 was particularly difficult.

I was working with a veteran centric organization. We were asked to share our stories in meetings or in writing in chats if we wanted. I spent the day thinking about my 9/11 story – what was it in its entirety? How had it developed over the years since that day? As I listened to, read about and responded to other’s stories, I wondered what their reaction would be if I shared my truth. Once I was able to put it down into words that is. It took longer than one day to capture it and be comfortable with sharing it but here it is. My hope is the rollercoaster will be less extreme with each passing 9/11 as I learn to let go of my emotions around each of the topics. 

Header photo consists of a U.S. flag flying near the Atlanta Symphony Hall in October 2018 and the Chile flag flying at the Regimiento 21 de Coquimbo in La Serena on September 11, 2017.

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