September 11, 2001. Never Forget. And indeed thousands of journalists, writers and the like will be reporting and sharing their thoughts and experiences from that harrowing day thirteen years ago. How could we ever forget? It becomes highly predictable to the point of cliche that a conversation about 9/11 will undoubtedly have a point where someone will ask you where you were or what you were doing when the planes struck the World Trade Center. To which my response is I was riding on a school bus trying to navigate my first real week as a sophomore in high school. Sadly, it all goes a bit fuzzy after that.
Never forget. Yet, the sad fact is I can never really remember what happened that day, how I felt or what was going through my mind in the moment. This has always made me a bit uncomfortable. Mostly likely, I was in shock and confused to what was happening. I probably had feelings of anger and sadness. But if I'm being honest with not only myself, I have no idea what I was going through in that moment. I simply don't remember. It may seem trivial but this has always bothered me. I felt it was some sort of slight to the real pain and suffering people had felt. Pain and grief most people will never forget.
So, in turn, my story about 9/11 is an uninteresting one. For obvious geographical reasons (I live and was living in Washington state) my story will always be inherently different. But I've learned something about writing, even if our story is unimportant to most, it is still uniquely ours. Your story may never change lives but it doesn't have to. Some times it just needs to be told. This is mine.
It wasn't until some years later when I finally started to understand what actually happened that day in September. Even in my late 20s, I am 28 to be exact, I still go back and ask why. Since I don't have a story of what happened, my story resides in two different places at the same time. This may seem confusing so let me explain.
One dreary afternoon in typical Washington spring weather fashion, I sat inside talking with my great uncle Norman who had fought in WWII. According to his wife he never shared stories about the war. You see, he was a B-17 Flying Fotress tail gunner. They had a life expectancy of only 12 missions. He flew 22. Yet here he was divulging everything to a newly minted teenager. I asked my questions with the innocence only a child could have. He happily responded to my inquiries. I'll never forget it. While much of the finer details are lost to me now, I will never forget the feelings of pride I had being related to this strong and brave man.
The horrors this man went through could fill a book and win an Oscar. Even though the fight in Europe against Fascist and Nazi forces are more prevalent in our minds when thinking of WWII, nothing defined a nation more than the attacks on Pearl Harbor. This was probably the single most event that forced America into a war. My great uncle lived this tragedy like I did 9/11. His date is one that would live in infamy, while mine is never to be forgotten.
While I have never fought in a war or even pretend to know what it's like, his insights helped me later unlock what I might have felt when trying to discern what I was feeling that day. He talked about the mass confusion and hysteria that swept the nation. The anger he felt towards the people who did this. I'm sure many people who weren't in Pearl Harbor the day the attacks began, who watched from afar felt terribly helpless. This was me. I sat in horror watching as the second plane struck the 2nd tower. My heart still drops to this day when I see the video. I start to feel immensely sick inside. I can feel the tears start to build inside wanting to burst. I try to quell my anger and I ask myself, "How could someone want to inflict so much pain on that many innocent people?" Of course these are questions that are being driven purely from my emotionally distraught state of mind.
Without going on too much of a tangent, I want to briefly touch on something not only because its barely talked about but because it also hits very close to home. When thinking back on my conversation with my uncle I can't help but hear within his voice the intense and emotional connection to what happened. This is the same emotion that led our generation to block a Muslim group from opening a Mosque some few blocks away from Ground Zero. This is also the same emotion that led to Japanese internment camps here in the US. The reason it hits close to home isn't just because of my uncle who fought in WWII or the fact that my mother's brother is married to a women from Japan. It's because I currently live in the city of Puyallup, WA, which is about 40 minutes south of Seattle. More specifically I drive past the Washington State Fair grounds which was once used as a Japanese internment camp. It held mostly US Japanese citizens in a state of limbo before being processed and shipped out to another camp. While this is nothing like what the Nazis did to the Jews, it is still a dark spot in our history.
With the gift of hindsight it's easy to see how appalling this was but when listening to the people who lived it, it's also easy to see their side of it. Of course it doesn't justify the atrocities of Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and the Japanese internment camps. Then again that wasn't my purpose here either. My purpose was to show that in a moment our lives can quickly occupy itself within the grey areas. It's only with hindsight that we are able to see things in more black and white terms.
It seems that each generation before me had to deal with some sort of national tragedy. Whether it was The Great Depression, Pearl Harbor, The Vietnam War, Oklahoma City bombings, or 9/11, each generation has been where I sat that day on my way to school. While each generation seemingly doesn't understand the next this is one thing where we can draw common ground. It isn't a pleasant experience but it is a truly universal one.
Yet among all this despair and pain, there can be a sense of good and hope. Steven Pinker, in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature, shows that violence is declining. Violence is indeed at its lowest levels in human history. But one of his conclusions is where we can draw hope in our future. People are becoming more empathetic. That is they are acquiring more empathy. 9/11 helped me understand my great uncle when he experienced Pearl Harbor and vice versa. By vicariously experiencing his emotions, it helped me understand mine later in life. This made me become more empathetic towards his life altering experience as a tail gunner and the attacks on Pearl Harbor. As empathy persists, with each subsequent generation becoming more acutely aware of other people's experiences, maybe we can finally break the cycle of human tragedy and violence.
So after 13 years when people still inevitably ask me where I was when the planes flew into the World Trade Center, I answer with, "On the bus, on my way to school, just like the rest of us."