… I was working in the Technical Services Department of Lamont Library at Harvard University. It was a small, open office with five people plus a student worker or two. It was a typical morning, and we were all just getting settled to start the day. Jay went to Boston.com, the online version of the Boston Globe, to check the news, and said, “Hey, they’re reporting that a plane has just flown into the World Trade Center in New York.” I thought, and may have said, “That’s awful; they had that bombing in the basement of the Trade Center just a few years ago.”
I initially assumed that this was an accident and that it was a small plane, similar to the plane crash into the Empire State Building in 1945. When Jay passed on a report a few minutes later that a second plane had flown into the Trade Center, I thought, “Well, that’s just impossible. Two planes almost one after another? Couldn’t happen. This is just an example of the wild rumors that surround news stories at first.”
We didn’t have a TV, but we found a radio and started listening as reports came in confirming that two planes had hit, that they were large commercial airliners, and that a plane had struck the Pentagon and another might be heading for the White House. At hearing the last report I felt as though the ground had opened up beneath us. What was this? Were we being invaded? Would the government fall? It was the first and last time in my life that I felt radically unsure of the future—not just my future, but the future of our country.
In Zadie Smith’s novel White Teeth, she describes the feeling much better than I could:
“You could divide the whole of humanity into two distinct camps, as far as she was concerned, simply by asking them to complete a very simple questionnaire, of the kind you find in Woman’s Own on a Tuesday:
- Are the skies you sleep under likely to open up for weeks on end?
- Is the ground you walk on likely to tremble and split?
- Is there a chance (and please check the box, no matter how small that chance seems) that the ominous mountain casting a midday shadow over your home might one day erupt with no rhyme or reason?
Because if the answer is yes to one or all of these questions, then the life you lead is a midnight thing, always a hair’s breadth from the witching hour; it is volatile, it is threadbare; it is carefree in the true sense of that term; it is light, losable like a key ring or a hair clip. … [W]hy not overthrow the government on a whim, why not blind the man you hate, why not go mad, go gibbering through the town like a loon, waving your hands, tearing your hair? There is nothing to stop you—or rather anything could stop you, any hour, any minute.”
That is how it felt that day 18 years ago. Fairly early in the day we were released to go home—I ended up staying most of the day and boarding a nearly empty commuter train about 4pm. At home I called my parents, and then spent the evening avoiding coverage of the tragedy—not easy because stations that were not covering the day’s events were not broadcasting at all, out of respect for the dead.
But for me the feeling lasted just one day—by the next day it felt as though the country was going to withstand the blow and the government had things under control. The world, for many of us, was stable and predictable again.
But, to get back to Zadie Smith’s quote, what about people for whom the world is perpetually unstable? How does that affect what they do and don’t do? This is one of the ways privilege works—when our world is predictable, safe and stable, we have a solid basis on which to plan and act. The question for each of us is: how do we use this advantage to make things better for all? How do we act to honor those who lost their lives before, during and after the 9/11 attacks, and the many more who have lost loved ones? With anger and hate, or with compassion and courage? It is a choice that each of us face, every day.