Editor’s Note: The essay below was written in 2001 and appears in the self-published book, Through Our Eyes: A Tapestry of Words and Images in Response to September 11. Printed and distributed in 2002, the book was the result of an independent, volunteer documentary project organized by a journalist and several friends. The author’s bio was written in 2002 and has not been updated.
The creatively inclined James Matthew House, 19, grew up in Indianapolis, Indiana, and now studies economics at Boston College. Matt has traveled extensively through both Europe and the American heartland. His interests include photography, writing and music. He was in class the morning of Sept. 11 and wrote his essay Sept. 30.
I guess the best way to describe how this tragedy affected me is to start where I did, walking up to the door of my accounting class. The lights inside the room were dim, and through the window in the door, it looked as if several people were sitting in the back of the room looking at the projector screen. I didn’t recognize the people, so I assumed that the previous class was running late and I went to the restroom in the meantime.
On the way there and even inside the restroom, there were fliers loudly proclaiming, “FACULTY, STAFF AND STUDENTS: CHECK YOUR E-MAIL AND YOUR VOICE MAIL. PEOPLE MAY BE TRYING TO COMMUNICATE WITH YOU.” At that point I was a little confused, because I had never seen fliers like this before, and the messages seemed too straightforward. I didn’t really understand why communication with loved ones suddenly had become so important that two such signs would be posted in the bathroom. After resigning myself to the fact that some things in life were not to be understood, this flier in particular, I went back to my accounting class. The room was still dim, so I stood outside.
Two of my classmates approached and I said, “I wouldn’t go in there. I don’t think the class has let out yet.” One responded, “No, I think they have the TV on,” and walked inside. I followed suit, and stared at a tongue of flame emerging from what the text at the bottom of the screen labeled the World Trade Center. I must have taken a seat, although I’m not sure my eyes ever broke contact with the screen.
It was a warm day outside, in the 80s, if I remember right. I was wearing a fleece, however, because the course I take prior to accounting is in a classroom that normally hovers around 65 degrees. In the business school building, the classes are warmer, comfortable. I didn’t need the fleece, but I hadn’t taken it off when I saw the screen. And my arms, head, neck, back and legs became covered in goose bumps.
I’m not prone to irrational fear, and I’m not overly dramatic. The goose bumps seemed appropriate at the time, however, and still seem that way – I was scared. Very scared. I had walked from a world in which I felt very comfortable into one with which I was quite unfamiliar. In my world, planes don’t fly into buildings. In my world, buildings down the coast don’t collapse and bury the hopes and dreams of thousands of people in so much ash and dust.
When I look at pictures in the paper now, two weeks later, I see remnants of the two buildings silhouetted against the still standing skyscrapers of Manhattan. It is painful and encouraging at the same time, that while the two kings of the New York skyline have fallen, life and indeed this country will continue to move on. I believe that is the finger in the eye of whoever planned this attack – the remarkable ability of the people of this country to stand up and keep moving even after getting knocked down completely off-guard. It is a tribute, I believe, to our true nature: despite the petty squabbles and indignities typical of everyday life here, when disaster strikes, we have truly risen as a people.
In the weeks since the tragedy, I have witnessed an incredible amount of patriotism amongst my friends, some of whom carry a green card. I cannot help but smile when I think of how much respect I gained for everyone in this country after the recent events. We have been united in a ghastly fashion, by a series of surprises and uncertainties.
Nothing could have prepared us for what took place. No one understood the anger, resentment and frustration that must have caused so few people to take so many lives. We don’t understand now, because these tragedies left so many questions unanswered. The terrorists didn’t even have the dignity to leave a calling card on why they planned and executed these attacks. People hate our country for any number of reasons, just as we disparage and disrespect across the globe with our endless policing and condemnation of cultures that are so different from our own. In a very cynical fashion, it is difficult to know why these acts were committed because there is a virtually endless number of reasons the perpetrators could have chosen as “valid.”
While we as a people have united in the wake of this to stand tall against terrorism of any sort, we have stood united in a lesser fashion for many years. We are responsible for an unknown number of atrocities and abuses in foreign lands. While this in no way provides an adequate excuse for the sort of attack we have now endured, I believe in the future we should take a serious look at our policies before heading outside our borders. As a country, we preach tolerance, freedom and liberty, but none of these can or should be pressed into other cultures in the fashion the United State is so famous for. Who are we to create the status quo around the world? We have become terribly frustrated with this attempt to show our country the “right” way, but somehow our own attempts at doing the same are viewed as necessary and even laudable.
Perhaps the most insightful and painful part of the whole situation is the number of questions it has raised. “Why?” seems to be the most popular, although I haven’t come across a popular answer yet. In fact, I have come across very few answers to the questions myself and others have. Nearly three weeks after the fact, it seems we’re still struggling to answer, of all things, “Who?” The question that seems most significant to me, however, is “How will things change?”
We have already shown that an attack such as this will not break us as a people or as a country. However, thousands of lives were lost on September 11, 2001, and if we as a people are too stubborn to make any changes, large or small, then those will not be the only lives lost in vain. The new campaign against terrorism does not concern me with its ultimate goal, but it does concern me that our approach seems to involve treading on the toes of millions of people worldwide. I believe we as a people must embrace and extend the tolerance and the acceptance that we have preached and only sometimes practiced for the last 200 years. Only then will we truly stand united. Only then will we win.