That’s the question so many people asked after 9/11. Where were you when the planes hit? I was in Bangkok, Thailand staying with my mom. Because of the time difference, it was actually nighttime. We had just gotten back from dinner and were entering her apartment when my Grandma Tantraporn called us up and told us to turn on the television. I remember her asking, “Don’t you watch the news?!” and I was thinking, “Well, yeah, but we just got home…”
Mom and I went into the living room and turned the set on. Automatically the screen was filled with these images of the first tower burning from the top. At that point, there was still so much confusion about what had happened. They were saying a plane had hit the building, but nobody knew what size plane. Everybody assumed it was a terrible accident. As we were standing there watching the smoke billow out across the city, we watched the second plane as it got closer and closer to that second building.
I just remember hearing my mom’s voice going, “Oh my God, no, no…” and just then, the second plane hit the other tower. Up until the point of contact, I didn’t think it was actually going to hit. It was like watching a movie. It was hard to believe that it was reality.
With that second hit, there came realization. This wasn’t an accident. This was intentional. The meaning of that was so horrifying. Both of us were crying, our hands over our mouths, our eyes widened in a state of shock. I found myself sitting on the floor and couldn’t remember when I’d sunk down. I hadn’t even made it to the couch.
We stayed just that way as the first tower fell. It felt like the period at the end of a sentence. This was really happening. Everyone on the tv was in a state of panic. Images came of people fleeing up the streets from the huge tornado of debris, and that second tower still spewing smoke from the top. It reminded me of an old man struggling to hold the weight of himself up. Too soon, his legs gave out and the second tower came down. Even now, after all this time, whenever I see the image of that second tower come down, I can’t help but cry. It was just so definitive. A full stop marking the end of what was.
At the time, mom had a Japanese student living with her. We had called her into the living room and were showing her what was happening on the screen. What struck me was how indifferent her reaction seemed. She stopped for a moment, but then kind of shrugged it off and went back to her room. I remember feeling so confused about that. I was thinking, “Don’t you understand? This is HUGE. Everything is different now.” It was surreal to be facing those two extremes in a living room around the world. On one end was this overwhelming destruction and the glimpse of a shift in reality, and the other was cool disinterest. I kept thinking, “Well, she’s young. Maybe she just doesn’t understand…” But, I couldn’t figure out how anybody couldn’t be completely devastated by this.
To be honest, I couldn’t understand the scope of events and how things had changed, either. I’m not just talking about the large differences that have occurred since then. 9/11 changed what we view as possible. Before that day, two whole buildings collapsing wasn’t possible. It wasn’t a part of our reality or our existence. We didn’t have the specter of Terrorism with a capital T.
I think about how the act of flying has changed. My husband and I had started dating right before I flew to Thailand and our relationship was still in its infancy. At that time, he and I were writing quite a lot back and forth and chatting on MSN Messenger, but we never really talked about 9/11 after it happened. It was almost like it was too big, too deep, too fresh and painful to put into words.
One of the few times it was mentioned that sticks out in my mind was when he was making plans to fly out and meet me in Bangkok. Mom had asked that he bring some Crystal Light flavor packets with him because you couldn’t get them in Thailand and I remember him responding, “So, what you’re saying is you want me to fly with a powdery substance internationally?” I don’t know why, but it just resonated with me how something that should be so simple and mundane like even bringing drink packets could be affected by an event like this.
It makes me sad to think of all the generations after and all the kids that have never known a world without those images. I feel like our country, and indeed the world, lost a big chunk of its innocence that day. I think about the wars we’ve been in and all the lives that have been lost since then. I think about the erosion of our civil rights in the name of safety and security. Then, I also remember the anthrax scare that came so soon after 9/11 and the shoe and Times Square bomber plots that have happened since and it gives fear credence.
I think our society struggles between the two points of security and freedom. I hope we find a way to achieve balance. In the process, I hope we remember that we’re united and bound by something more sacred and divine than politics or ideologies, we’re bound by our humanity.