I wasn’t in the United States on 9/11/2001. It was maybe the only time my mother was relieved I’d left New York and traveled halfway around the world to be a Peace Corps volunteer on the African continent.
Still, I have the memory, the “Where were you when you found out…?” memory that folks of a different generation also have about the JFK and MLK assassinations.
I was in the school library, talking to one of my favourite students, Hendrik, about a book in the Harry Potter series that I’d gotten him hooked on. (I just naturally wrote favorite there with the British English spelling as that was the norm in my country of service, Namibia.) We were talking and re-shelving books, and had been looking through the file cabinets to see if anything of use was in them, when in came one of the Christian Brothers. It was Brother Jim, who taught tenth grade maths at the junior secondary school in our village, the same school at which I taught ninth grade English and eighth grade maths.
Brother Jim approached me and said he thought I should close the library early, that something bad was happening in America. I was confused. I remember having had the thought that bad things were always happening in America and what did it matter to me? I might have even verbalized that thought to Brother Jim. I know I suggested that Hendrik stay and monitor the library until I returned from watching whatever news report Brother Jim thought it necessary for me to see. But Brother Jim insisted I close up the library and come with him, that this wasn’t news I would be walking away from in a few minutes.
I acquiesced and hurriedly shooed the students out, then followed quiet, unflappable, even-keeled man across the grounds of the Roman Catholic Mission to the former hospital, which was now living quarters for the four monks and classrooms for the reading, music, and computer courses the three other gentlemen taught to students and other members of the community. Along with spotty internet service, the Brothers had satellite TV. And it was to the CNN coverage of the Twin Towers in New York that Brother Jim delivered me.
My fellow American volunteer, Christian, was already there, mouth agape at the sight of smoke billowing from the upper stories of the towers. I remember the reporters repeating that the first tower had “collapsed” and I couldn’t wrap my head around that word. What did they mean? The tower was still in the video coverage. What did they mean it collapsed?
Christian and I both had friends in New York. I had lived there the seven years prior to joining the Peace Corps, working in Manhattan for three of them, yet halfway around the world my geography failed me. I couldn’t clearly picture the subway map, nor the distance from my office building just south of Houston on the West side to what was later called “Ground Zero.” I couldn’t really fathom the proximity of my former co-workers to the devastation, but I knew enough to be worried. There weren’t that many stops on the A-C and E trains between the West 4th St station where I got off and the World Trade Center.
Luckily, we were able to use the Brothers’ internet to email friends and eventually find out that everyone we were worried about was accounted for. It was a long afternoon watching the television coverage and waiting for emails. The next morning at school, our principal said he was sorry for what had happened in our country, and aside from that, our lives largely continued unchanged.
So, while I have the memory of where I was when I found out about the terrorist attacks, I don’t have the associated feelings of fear that Americans who were residing in the States at the time seem to possess. I did not feel the terror in the same way that those on American soil at the time of the attacks felt it. It is a strange phenomenon, to have, in a monumental way, sort of missed an event that weighs so heavily on our national consciousness, and which continues to shape and direct government policy.
Paradoxically, I am both glad and sad to have experienced 9/11/2001 as I did.