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Not Another 9/11 Post

Osita Nwanevu
11 min read
Not Another 9/11 Post

Hey all. Let's hop to it.


What more is there to say about 9/11, really? As far as personal recollections go, I have nothing of interest. My memories are too hazy and too slight; I’d feel worse about this if the consequences of viscerally remembering that day hadn’t been so disastrous for the world and if 9/11 weren’t one of those events the world is intent on remembering for you. This year will be one of the last that we’ll make a point of stroking our chins about it, at least for a while ⁠— it’s just how anniversaries work. There’s the big 20th, maybe a big 25th if we don’t wear ourselves out now, and a golden jubilee at 50. By 75, so few with firsthand recollections of the event will be around that the remembrances will be mostly academic, and we’ll be as interested in our history of memorializing it as we’ll be in the event itself. “What was it like to remember 9/11?” we’ll ask. “How did they commemorate it and why?”

Really, some of the looks backward are already starting to read like class assignments. The Washington Post Magazine ran a collection of blurbs this week on how 9/11 changed American life. “Before 9/11, flying could be, at its best, a glamorous occasion,” a fashion illustrator informs us in “Travel, Part 1.” “Post-9/11, flying became more of a hassle, and functional outfits — easily removable shoes, minimal clothing — made it easier to get through security.” How true!

I will concede that I haven’t surveyed enough of these articles to characterize them fairly. There was a piece in New York I found striking, though. Colin Moynihan wrote about the photojournalist Robert Stolarik and one of 9/11’s most enduring images:

When planes struck the Twin Towers, Stolarik, a freelance photographer, grabbed two Nikon cameras and drove from his home in Brooklyn to Manhattan, convincing police officers to let him pass one roadblock and driving around another. While crossing the East River he stopped to take a picture that showed black smoke pouring out of both towers. He was seven blocks from the World Trade Center when the South Tower turned into a column of dust. His picture of that moment is dominated by people fleeing, some glancing back over a shoulder, some staring straight ahead as they run past the man with the camera
Then, as he approached the trade center, Stolarik glimpsed a woman covered in pale dust, stained with blood and walking on a debris-strewn street. She appeared out of the haze, almost like a mirage. He pointed his lens at her and clicked the shutter twice before moving on. Over the next six or seven hours he worked until he ran out of film, taking shelter when the second tower imploded, then walking across the field of rubble where the towers had stood. That afternoon he made his way to the midtown office of the Gamma Presse photo agency. There, an editor went through negatives with a loupe, using a red grease pencil to mark the pictures he wanted to distribute.

My first thoughts about this had less to do with 9/11 in particular than with journalism broadly speaking. This is the kind of thing Janet Malcolm was going on about. To look at someone dying or in distress and think to yourself, “Well, I’ve got to get a shot of that” ⁠— I simply don’t have whatever this takes.  That’s not a knock on photojournalists ⁠— all of us in this business are doing just about the same thing ethically speaking, although journalists obviously differ on what it’s all supposed to be for. Moynihan writes that Stolarik, for his part, sees photojournalism “as a way to record history, not as a form of advocacy or a means to influence opinion.” We’re told that this particular photograph “won first-place and second-place awards in separate categories in an annual competition run by the National Press Photographers Association.” Good for him, I suppose. We’re also told that Stolarik wants to find this woman, if she’s still alive. “In early August he decided that looking again for the woman would be a fitting coda to his journalistic existence,” Moynihan writes, “and hoped the reach of social media might increase his chances of success.”:

Their fleeting interaction, barely enough to qualify as a form of contact, had ended up playing a significant role in his life. And he had no idea of his impact, if any, on hers. He wondered whether the woman knew about his photograph and how she might react to it. Would she cherish the image, he wondered? Would it stir up dormant feelings of fear? For years she remained at the edge of his consciousness, coming to mind whenever someone mentioned 9/11 or the Twin Towers or when he thought back on the arc of his career.
[...] Stolarik said that he knew he might never speak with her or learn her name. She might never come across one of the social-media posts. She might not have made any 9/11-related claims or she might have made them without a lawyer. She might, unlike the image of her, no longer be in this world. And she might not want to be found. “I’m comfortable not finding her,” Stolarik said. But then he listed reasons why he was still trying. “I’d like to know if that picture is as defining for her as it is for me,” he said. “I’m not saying that me photographing her had to have changed her life, but I wouldn’t mind her knowing that in some ways she changed mine.”

What would that email be like? “Dear __________: You don’t know me, but I ran into you on 9/11 while you were covered in toxic dust and blood and wondering if you were going to die. I took a picture of you ⁠— you’ve surely seen it, it was everywhere ⁠— and it was quite a turning point for me professionally, I have to say. It doesn’t seem like you’ve made any effort to identify yourself over the last twenty years, but I can’t get you out of my head and I’ve been trying to track you down with the help of some major publications. Could you tell me how much that image has meant to you? Has it meant anything at all? I’d like to know. I think it would bookend my career quite nicely.”

The piece reminded me more than anything else of Kenneth Lonergan’s film Margaret (filmed in New York City in 2005, released in 2011), which has become my go-to recommendation for post-9/11 media ⁠— partially because I’m too young to have seen or remembered much else that was being put out then, but also because it really does seem to reflect what I’ve come to understand as the mood of the time. It’s not a film about 9/11, but the narrative ⁠— maybe intentionally, maybe not ⁠— captures what that day did to us remarkably well.

In the film, a pedestrian is hit and killed by a bus whose driver Gerald (Mark Ruffalo) had been distracted by Lisa (Anna Paquin), a 17-year old high school student. Lisa initially lies to the police about what happened, but eventually decides to fess up and urges Gerald to do the same. He doesn’t, and Lisa, impassioned and implacable, gradually becomes the motive force behind a wrongful death lawsuit aimed, at least as far as she’s concerned, at getting Gerald fired. I won’t spoil what happens, but by the end of the film it’s clear that Lisa’s come to need the lawsuit and her crusade ⁠— they’ve added depth and dimension to her life and her guilt makes it all the more difficult for her to let go.

In one of the film’s best moments, Emily, a friend of the woman killed in the accident, confronts Lisa as she describes what happened that day. As she’d died, the woman had asked for her daughter ⁠— also named Lisa. Our Lisa freights the coincidence with significance:

LISA: But then when I found out her daughter was dead, ever since then I keep having this really strong feeling that some way, for those last five minutes I kind of was her daughter. You know? Like maybe that's the reason I was there: Like in some weird way,  this obviously amazing woman got to see her daughter again for a few minutes, right before she died.
EMILY: I see. And is she still inhabiting your body? Or did she go right back to the spirit world after it was over?
LISA: I didn't mean she was literally inhabiting my body. I don't believe in all that stuff at all.
EMILY: I don't give a fuck what you believe in.
LISA: Oh my God! Why are you so mad at me!?
EMILY: Because this is not an opera!
LISA: What? You think I think this is an opera?
LISA: You think I'm making this into a dramatic situation because I think it's dramatic?!?
EMILY: I think you're very young.
LISA: What does that have to do with anything? If anything I think it means I care more than someone who's older! Because this kind of thing has never happened to me before!
EMILY: No, it means you care more easily! There's a big difference! Except that it's not you it's happening to!
LISA: Yes it is! I know I'm not the one who was run over --
EMILY: That's right, you weren't. And you're not the one who died of leukemia, and you're not the one who just died in an earthquake  in -- Algeria! But you will be. Do you understand me? You will be. And it's not an opera and it's not dramatic --
LISA: I'm well aware of that!
EMILY: And this first-blush phony deepness of yours is worth nothing.
LISA: Oh wow.
EMILY: Do you understand? It's not worth anything, because it'll be troweled over in a month or two. And then when you get older, and you don't have a big reaction every time a dog gets run over, then, then we'll find out what kind of a person you are! But this is nothing! I'm sorry, but I didn't start this conversation and I don't play these games.
LISA: I am not --
EMILY: And don't look so outraged! Because I'm not saying anything very outrageous! I'm telling you to knock it off! You have every right to falsify your own life, but you have no right to falsify anyone else's. It's what makes people into Nazis! And I'm sorry, but it's a little suspicious that you're making such a fuss about this when you didn't know her, and you're having troubles with your own mother --
LISA:   Oh my God!
EMILY: But this is my life we're talking about much more than it is yours! Because it's my real friend who got killed, who I'm never going to see again, really! Whom I have known since I was nineteen years old myself. OK? And I don't want that sucked into some kind of adolescent self-dramatization!

“We are not,” Emily tells Lisa finally, “supporting characters in the fascinating story of your life!”

In Lisa’s defense, there’s nothing exclusively adolescent about the frame of mind Emily attacks here ⁠— this is what much of the country was like after 9/11. One reason why, Margaret aside, I’m more fascinated by American culture immediately before the attacks than American culture immediately afterwards is that you can see in a show like The Sopranos (which I finished last year and like quite a bit) or Six Feet Under (which I’ve just started and don’t like so much) why we responded to them in the deranged way that we did. Obviously, fear was part of it. But stability and prosperity at the end of the Cold War and the millennium hadn’t brought us new purpose. The 2000 election wasn’t about very much, perhaps because there was a sense among many Americans that things had gotten about as good as they were ever going to get. For some ⁠— particularly creative types ⁠— this was a bleak realization. And a lot of the creative work we get out of this period is suffused with longing ⁠—  a sense that we’d gotten too soft to live up to a storied past and that there ought to be more to American life, and better rewards at the end of history, than consumerism, cubicles, and suburban ennui.

9/11 invited Americans to see themselves, once again, as the main characters of a grand drama. Here, we were told, was a threat that could strike down any one of us at any time. More so than in World War II or the Cold War, we were asked to believe that our very communities were the frontlines in good’s eternal struggle over evil. And it did turn people, quite literally, into Nazis. It wound up taking a lot longer than a couple months to pass.

On the anniversary 10 years ago, around the time I was leaving for college, I watched the Internet Archive’s collection of real-time coverage from the day for many hours. It’s often said that cable television proves its value during such events. I’m not so sure, really. Anchors filled time with irresponsible speculation and misinformation just as they do now; it didn’t take long for talking heads to start inventing conspiracy theories about the attacks and Saddam Hussein in Iraq that wound up mattering much more than Loose Change and all the rest. Ultimately, what I took away most of all from the experience was a sense of the pique and paranoia that would come to define American life in the years afterwards. It is difficult to watch people die. Once you see the event as it unfolded, it is relatively easy to understand why and how we succumbed to an illness we’ve yet to recover from.

Another bit of pre-9/11 material I’d like to recommend: Famously and quite eerily, Don DeLillo’s 1997 novel Underworld makes reference to the Twin Towers and what they’d come to represent in American life; a ghostly photograph of them was chosen as the book’s cover. But the book’s most prescient comment on the dawn of the 21st century isn’t explicitly tied to the towers at all. In an interview, one of the book’s characters, the artist Klara Sax, describes the paradigm we’ve been living in quite well:

I used to spend a lot of time on the Maine coast. I was married to a yachtsman, my second husband this was, a dealer in risky securities who was about to go bust any day but didn't know it at the time and he had a lovely ketch and we used to go up there and cruise the coastline. We sat on deck at night and the sky was beautifully clear and sometimes we saw a kind of halo moving across the star fields and we used to speculate what is this. Airliners making the North Atlantic run or UFOs you know, that was a popular subject even then. A luminous disc slowly crossing. Hazy and very high. And I thought it was too high for an airliner. And I knew that strategic bombers flew at something like fifty-five thousand feet. And I decided this is the refracted light from an object way up there, this is the circular form it takes. Because I wanted to believe that's what we were seeing. B-52s. War scared me all right but those lights, I have to tell you those lights were a complex sensation. Those planes on permanent alert, ever present you know, sweeping the Soviet borders, and I remember sitting out there rocking lightly at anchor in some deserted cove and feeling a sense of awe, a child's sleepy feeling of mystery and danger and beauty. I think that is power. I think if you maintain a force in the world that comes into people's sleep, you are exercising a meaningful power. Because I respect power. Now that power is in shatters or tatters and now that those Soviet borders don't even exist in the same way, I think we understand, we look back, we see ourselves more clearly, and them as well. Power meant something thirty, forty years ago. It was stable, it was focused, it was a tangible thing. It was greatness, danger, terror, all those things. And it held us together, the Soviets and us. Maybe it held the world together. You could measure things. You could measure hope and you could measure destruction. Not that I want to bring it back. It's gone, good riddance. But the fact is." And she seemed to lose her line of argument here. She paused, she realized the cigarette had burned down and the interviewer reached for it and Klara handed it over, delicately, butt-end first. "Many things that were anchored to the balance of power and the balance of terror seem to be undone, unstuck. Things have no limits now. Money has no limits. I don't understand money anymore. Money is undone. Violence is undone, violence is easier now, it's uprooted, out of control, it has no measure anymore, it has no level of values." And she paused again and thought. "I don't want to disarm the world," she said. "Or I do want to disarm the world but I want it to be done warily and realistically and in the full knowledge of what we're giving up.

Reasons To Be Cheerful

Good night.