The Trauma We Endured

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Marking today’s anniversary, Damon Linker recalls the months after 9/11:

Those were deranging times. I was so fearful in those days that I actually expressed regret to a friend that the fourth plane had failed to destroy the White House. The thing I feared most in those initial weeks after the attacks, you see, was that we would hesitate in striking back against our enemies. I wanted assurance of our national resolve, and I thought that nothing short of a vision of the White House in ruins would guarantee it.

I’m not proud that I had such thoughts and fears. But I wasn’t the only one. Some members of the Bush administration obviously had them, too.

He pleads with the country to break out of this mindset:

The United States is about to embark on yet another war in the Middle East in a desperate, clumsy effort to clean up the mess created in large part by the one started as a wildly excessive response to a single morning of murder in lower Manhattan. Although I never supported the Iraq War, I understand how smart, well-meaning people were able to convince themselves it was an absolutely necessary response to a dire threat. I spent several months 13 years ago stuck in that state of mind.

But then I got over my trauma and came to my senses. I’m still waiting for more of my fellow citizens to do the same.

Ellen S. Bakalian reflects on life without her husband, who was killed on 9/11:

A few months ago, I found myself in my attic at 11 p.m., tearing through boxes marked with Jeff’s initials, looking for a button-down shirt and tie for my 15-year-old daughter, Maggie.

Her lacrosse team had decided to wear men’s shirts and ties to school the next day to get pumped for a game. It sounds like fun, unless your father is dead and you don’t have a man’s shirt and tie in your house. I had not planned to open boxes that had been closed for almost 13 years on that particular night, but that’s what I was doing. I knew I saved at least one monogrammed shirt, but where was it? I could hear Maggie in her room crying tears for her father, who was killed in the World Trade Center when she was not yet 3 years old.

It’s a small-seeming thing, but these are the moments that loom large in my house. It’s those moments of sudden realization that Jeff should be here—and they always give me pause.

After his death, I saved some of Jeff’s clothes because I did not know what the girls would want. Maggie was so little, and Charlotte wasn’t even a year old. One day, I figured, they would either laugh at me for saving his favorite T-shirts, or they would be happy to have them. Turns out I was right to save what I did; they wear their father’s Miami Hurricanes and Rochester football shirts to school on spirit days. This summer, they found all his sweatshirts, and now they fight over them.

John Avlon, who worked as Giuliani’s speechwriter, remembers NYC after the attacks:

One unseasonably warm night in early December I went walking down from my office toward ground zero. I walked without a coat, wanting to take a break and refocus my mind. We had written nearly four hundred eulogies for the mayor and his surrogates to deliver over the past three months, as many as forty-five in a single weekend, with the mayor attending up to nine wakes and memorials in the course of each of his marathon 18-hour days. The relentless pace required us to impose a certain degree of emotional distance to get the job done. But now the feelings of heartache increased as the workload diminished.

Rescue workers had been laboring at ground zero every hour since the disaster. At night the site was lit by spotlights, like a movie set. Fires had burned there for eighty days, rekindling when a lower level of the underground fire was exposed to the oxygen in the air. Now tourists and well-wishers on pilgrimage sought out the site, standing at great distances, taking pictures of the hulking wreckage and skeletal spires looming over the fences. There were flowers left against every gate and poetry scribbled out of paper taped to the lampposts. The missing-person posters that had appeared around the city in the days after the attacks had given way to heart-wrenching good-byes, handwritten cards with photographs promising them that we would never forget. Family members still gathered at the platform set up on the edge of the site and gazed at their loved ones’ last resting place with haunted eyes.

The largest mass grave in America existed uneasily as both hallowed ground and deconstruction site. The scope of the destruction, the size of the wound cut into the heart of our city, remained humbling and retrained its ability to inspire calm outrage, cold purposefulness.

Josh Robin spoke with Giuliani:

[T]he former mayor concedes that even as he steeled us in those days of throat-burning dust, he, too, was barely holding it together. Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised. Mark Twain famously said courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear—not absence of fear. In retrospect, Giuliani’s doubt oozed during his first news conference—four hours or so after the North Tower collapsed. A reporter asked him how many were dead.

“The number of casualties will be more than any of us can bear, ultimately,” he said then.

Molly Knight Raskin tells the story of Danny Lewin, 9/11’s first victim:

[B]efore any of the horror unfolded that day, a little-known act of heroism is likely to have taken place on Flight 11 when Lewin—an Israeli-American who served in one of the most elite counterterrorism units of the Israel Defense Force (IDF)—rose from his seat and engaged in a struggle with one of the terrorists to try to thwart the hijacking. During the struggle Lewin was killed, making him the very first victim of the 9/11 attacks.

Until now, Lewin’s story has remained untold—mainly out of respect for friends and family who closely guarded their memories of the brilliant commando turned computer scientist. In addition, the official reports of what happened on Flight 11 were, for some time, conflicting and confusing. A memo mistakenly released by the Federal Aviation Administration stated that terrorist Satam al-Suqami shot and killed Lewin with a single bullet around 9:20 a.m. (obviously inaccurate, as the plane crashed at 8:46 a.m.). But almost as soon as the memo was leaked, FAA officials claimed it was written in error and that Lewin had been stabbed, not shot.

The 9/11 Commission concurred in its final report, issued four years later, offering a more detailed summary: Based on dozens of interviews with those who spoke with two of the plane’s flight attendants during the hijacking, the commission determined that al-Suqami most likely killed Lewin by slashing his throat from behind as he attempted, single-handedly, to try to stop the hijacking. The time of his death was reported to be somewhere between 8:15 and 8:20 a.m.

Dreher shares his memories of that day:

We were New Yorkers on 9/11. Because I was a newspaper reporter, and because the last words I said to my wife before running across the Brooklyn Bridge to the burning towers was, “I’m going to get as close as I can,” and because she could not reach me by mobile phone after the first tower collapsed, so she thought I was dead, and because like every other New Yorker we lived through that horrible autumn of smoke and stench and funerals, and missing posters on every public surface, and PTSD, and anger, constant anger, and fear, and conversations about whether or not it would be worth living if a dirty bomb went off in Manhattan — because of all these things, it is a blessing that 9/11 feels like just another day now. I never thought it would.

My next thought is guilt. Am I forgetting them? I am forgetting them. For a long time, years after that day, I believed that I was obliged to maintain the traumatic bond with that day, as a matter of honor. Never forget. But you can’t live like that. You can exist like that, but you can’t live like that.

There is the old woman I know, long divorced, who cannot let go of her bad marriage. She has built an entire identity around the memory of her abusive ex-husband, and her own victimization. It has ruined her. As far as I can tell, the man was horrible to her. But this was 30, 40 years ago. She’s as angry as if it were yesterday, and if you naively pity her and try to ease her pain, she will turn on you as uncaring and disloyal. Her bad marriage, with all its hate and pain, is the event that gives her life meaning. I didn’t know her before the divorce, but I imagine that she was a beautiful, caring woman. Now, the memory of her suffering has disfigured her.

(Photo: A woman bows her head in prayer during 13th anniversary ceremonies commemorating the September 11th attacks at the Wall of Names at the Flight 93 National Monument in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. By Jeff Swensen/Getty Images)

A Poem For September 11th

Mass MOCA

Dish poetry editor Alice Quinn writes:

Today I was researching poetry which Jenny Holzer has used in her phenomenally moving installations over the years, and I came upon this video of her PROJECTIONS with poems by Wislawa Szymborska for MASS MoCA in North Adams, Massachusetts, which I found excruciatingly powerful to view on this day. Holzer features “Tortures” and “The Joy of Writing,” poems which can be found in View with a Grain of Sand: Selected Poems of Wislawa Szymborska, translated from the Polish by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh (Harcourt Brace & Co.). The video can be viewed here.

At The New Yorker, where I was poetry editor for many years, just after September 11, 2001, we ran Adam Zagajewski’s poem “Try to Praise the Mutilated World” on the back page of the magazine. It had arrived on my desk – miraculously – days before the event, and it seemed so natural that a Polish poet would supply the poem we all needed to read.

“Try to Praise the Mutilated World” by Adam Zagajewski (translated, from the Polish, by Clare Cavanagh):

Try to praise the mutilated world.
Remember June’s long days,
and wild strawberries, drops of wine, the dew.
The nettles that methodically overgrow
the abandoned homesteads of exiles.
You must praise the mutilated world.
You watched the stylish yachts and ships;
one of them had a long trip ahead of it,
while salty oblivion awaited others.
You’ve seen the refugees going nowhere,
you’ve heard the executioners sing joyfully.
You should praise the mutilated world.
Remember the moments when we were together
in a white room and the curtain fluttered.
Return in thought to the concert where music flared.
You gathered acorns in the park in autumn
and leaves eddied over the earth’s scars.
Praise the mutilated world
and the gray feather a thrush lost,
and the gentle light that strays and vanishes
and returns.

(From Without End: New and Selected Poems by Adam Zagajewski, translated by several translators. Translation © 2002, and used by permission of, Farrar, Straus & Giroux. Photo of Jenny Holzer Mass MoCA exhibit by Flickr user Amy.)