Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Why I Didn't Care About 9/11

9/11 is something I revisit frequently because it's the biggest incident of personal apathy in my life. These experiences are frequent, often occuring during tragedy, but there's been no singular moment as big as that one, and no one where my having the wrong reaction was so obvious in the culture. In the years afterward, I wondered if I wasn't sociopathic, but since then I've had dozens if not hundreds of Americans express similar experiences. And so I'd like to revisit that morning with you today.

In my dorm, the girl across the hall was having a fit that morning. She threw a tantrum over something every morning. I'd woken to her tantrums more often than to my alarm clock.

“They blew up the subway!” I heard. I dismissed it. I showered and readied for class – it was my first day of classes at college.

As I pulled on a t-shirt, I checked It was down. That was a first. I didn’t know sites of that size could go down.

I stopped in the Commons building to check my mail.

There was one cable television on campus, stationed in the Commons building across from the mail room. On my way to check my mail, I found the halls clogged with people. I looked over a boy’s shoulder and watched the plane hit the second tower. It was probably a replay.

I couldn’t move. Not for terror or awe, but because that’s what I felt the room wanted. In social situations I’m keenly aware of what I think is acceptable in the group. In seconds I had all the news the TV had to share; people were dead, these buildings were going down. And I was ready to leave, but no one else was. I only knew that walking away would break an unspoken covenant with these stunned strangers. That was my strongest feeling.

“Bullshit,” I heard from my left. “Bullshit. This is why everyone hates America.”

It was the Eastern European accent of one of my few friends. He was a prickly personality. We’d met during a Shakespeare workshop. When I confessed to the work shoppers that I’d taken it because I found his works unbearably stilted and desired understanding, everyone but him stared. He laughed his ass off.

Now he was cursing his ass off in two languages. His face scoured all the silent Americans, seeking argument. Most eyes remained on the TV, but some shifted with indignation. It grew hotter without the temperature going up.

I touched his shoulder. He tensed as though to clock me, but I spoke before he could ball up a hand.

“Why don’t you tell me about this?” I asked. It was all tone; I don’t really know what I meant. I only knew that the attacks on TV were raw voyeurism, and that this was an act of violence I could actually prevent. My tone of voice engaged him enough to follow me into the mail room. There, he was completely unable to articulate what offended him. Something to do with our media and our excessive self-pity. After two minutes of spitting and spinning in place, he departed for class. So did I.

Since then I've thought that if I had been at the Twin Towers or the Pentagon, I would have been furious to help, to run into the buildings and grab someone. It was distance that made my attention useless. Here, I was a little useful. Both the desire to pretend to be solemn for strangers and to save my friend from a fistfight were uses for me. These items I felt things about; the towers meant nothing beyond their effects on people around me, who in turn needed things.

Our first day of classes wound up canceled. I sat in the classroom, greeting my fellow students and letting them know what had happened and where to go for more information. In half an hour, I went to the lawn for the dean’s little speech. I spent hours lending shoulders for people to cry on. I knew enough to get out of the way of kids whose relatives might actually be in those towers, and enough to check up that no more attacks had happened. Once it seemed certain that it had ended with the fourth plane, my mind actually shifted to thoughts that if I could write a book about this fast enough I might ride it to publication. I knew enough to chastise myself for the thought, even though I didn’t feel shame.

There was no fear for myself or country. I knew enough to go stolid when others came around, to mimic being affected, because that's what crowds wanted. I knew enough not to say a lot of things. I wondered if everyone around me was acting, or if the majority possessed empathy I lacked. Was I fundamentally broken? Or were they all going through imitation shock, out of the same social instinct that had kept me glued to the TV room?

Several anniversaries later, I’m still not comfortable with this feature about myself. I've been in this extremely pragmatic and dispassionate head space for break-ups, family tragedies and deaths. For literary rejections and my own body falling apart. In most instances I know enough to do well even when I don't feel empathy or emotional inspiration. 9/11 was simply the biggest example, because it's still this cultural crucible that's supposed to show the best and worst of humanity. I keep hearing it was supposed to.


  1. It was the voyeurism of the media coverage that did me in. Watching people die again and again felt so intrusive. Was so intrusive. There was nothing I could do from so far away, and I really, really didn't need to watch other people's tragedies unfold. So I didn't.

    1. As someone still not at peace with his own reaction to these events and their cultural resonance, I completely respect your reactions, EC. Disgust at the recycling of real violence seems utterly reasonable and even empathic.

  2. I won't lie to you -- I can't grok watching the live event and not feeling anything. The first thing I actually saw on TV was the collapse of the first tower and because I had just woken up and had no idea of how long things had been going on, all I could think was of all the people who might have still been trying to get out and how they didn't stand a chance. I cried. It still makes me hurt.

    That being said, I should note that I have an overload of empathy (except about not having empathy -- LOL). It's not always the most comfortable of 'abilities' (or whatever you want to call it).

    I was shellshocked when it happened, but I didn't read or watch much of anything after the fact -- once the immediacy of the event is over, that's when it turns into voyeurism as far as I'm concerned; the rehashes, the "up close and personal" crap that I hated when I worked in a local newsroom, all the stuff that goes with contemporary American news ...

    1. I think I have an easier time grasping your reaction because it's closer to what everyone was supposed to have and what I saw emulated all around me. Mine is clearly an outlier experience, at least in terms of being expressed and emulated, and I beat myself up for it for years. I certainly respect your emotional reaction to it - moreso, for years I felt evil for not having the same reaction. The fallout from writing this has been incredibly illuminating.

    2. Maybe you felt it so deeply that not feeling it was your reaction -- if that makes any sense. I have never seen anything in your fiction or your dealings with others that makes be concerned about your reaction. I can't see you doing a "(shrug) 3,000 people? That's about a days worth of auto accidents" kind of thing, either.

      Although, I might have chosen a less "poke the bear" title for my post. :) {hug}

  3. I'll admit to being first fascinated, then annoyed, at the nonstop coverage. I figured Bush-league would use the event for political advantage, although I was amazed at how far he took it. IMO, that did more damage than the planes.

    1. Having only one television available, I missed most of the heavy coverage. The campus became a second-hand news station for a while.

      And there is no arguing that the administration's reaction to 9/11 took many more innocent lives than 9/11 itself. Both are excruciatingly regrettable.

  4. I remember being sad people were dying and there was nothing I could do, but I was also fascinated by the whole event. I saw on TV when the second plan hit the tower and it's collapse. It was like, "Wow, I'm witnessing history." After that, I remember quiet and not much else. Then life went on for me.

    Now when the anniversaries come up, I'm pretty apathetic about them. I don't go out of my way to devote tweets about it like people. If I see one that has a sentiment I like, I'll RT it to honor the anniversary. It does feel to me like an obligation too. Like it's expected of me to get emotional during the anniversary. I'm not that kind of overly expressive of my emotion person. Yes, I'm bummed it happened, it's good people are remembering, but I'm not about to tear up.

    I can grasp your feelings and how it can make you feel uncomfortable not to be reacting the way everyone else is.

  5. The first plane hit while I was in the elevator going up to my work. It was initially reported as an accident. One of my co-workers managed to get a BBC video feed accessed, so our department saw the second plane hit live. By that time it was being reported as a military strike. We discussed how that couldn't be true because it was plainly a passenger plane.

    When the first reports of the Pentagon being hit came in, both myself and another co-worker who had been politically active said, "that's a false report -- they're trying to stir up hatred for political gain." Then we saw the video.

    I grew up hearing stories of what it's like to be in the receiving end of a blitzkrieg, and hearing people trying to avoid telling stories of what life in displaced persons camps is like. Mostly I was worried about the form and size of war this was going to lead into.

    By the time it became clear the immediate attacks were over, the company owner had told us all to go home. I didn't turn on the radio or the net when I got home, so I missed the voyeurism part. My general rule with news is either to see it live or wait 24 hours. Besides, I was trying to track down all the purple I knew in NYC.

    As for your Eastern European friend's comments: outside of the US, Americans are perceived as bringing ruin and death to other countries (Viet Nam was the most common example, followed by Grenada), but always act shocked when someone tries to do the same to them (before 9/11 embassy bombings would have been the most common example). That's in no way an endorsement of killing anyone -- only the "why do they hate us?" reaction. What puzzles me is that this used to be a well-known thing in the US, in the 60s and 70s. I'm not sure how it got forgotten, but it seems like it happened during the Reagan years.

    As for your reaction: it's totally normal and, as you pointed out, is very useful because it lets you keep functioning during a crisis. So long as you can process the emotional stuff at another time, as necessary, it's all good. I suspect it's more common than we realise, since as you did a lot of people try to blend in to avoid unfair reactions.

  6. John, you are one of the most compassionate people I know. Believe me when I say that this behavior of yours is in fact a feature and not a bug.

    There are two interrelated factors at work here: what you feel (if anything) when you think about 9/11, and how people react to your stated feelings.

    We are socialized to assign proactive sympathy to whoever is loudest, angriest, or perceived to be suffering the most.

    (Unless you are a woman talking to a man, in which case you are being irrational no matter how calm you are, and your argument is thusly invalid. But that's a whole different fun story.)

    I'm not saying that people who are loud, or angry, or suffering more than me do not deserve sympathy. The subtle problem is that we have developed a social expectation for people to fall over themselves in pursuit of displaying that sympathy. People have grown to believe that once they are shielded by a sufficient quantity of anger, volume, or suffering, they are not only immune from judgment, but also from the danger of being additionally provoked.

    Now in terms of what you feel or don't feel, I plainly think that it comes down to an essentially random irrational crapshoot. Some people watched the TV broadcast and were paralyzed by an involuntary stream of visualizations about the suffering being inflicted on their fellow humans. Some people watched the towers fall from their rooftops on Long Island and thought, "That sure is a lot of smoke." When something as big as the WTC attacks happen, there is no incorrect reaction. We are socialized to hear that phrase and blurt out "Yes there is!", because we're socialized to reinforce the "suffering shield".

    The truth, however, is that you are just as entitled to your lack of feelings as anyone else is entitled to their strong feelings. The struggle for you is stating an unpopular feeling... the difficulty for everyone else is learning to accept and respect your lack of feelings despite their own.

  7. I cried when I found out, but I still don't know why. I can't assign any particular emotion to the feeling. I don't really feel anything on the anniversaries, except a vague respect for the others who are grieving specific losses. In the moment that I found out what happened, I just started shaking and crying. I can't even really call it empathy. I never thought in terms of there being people inside those buildings. I don't know why I cried; it was a gut reaction like a sneeze, or being sick. The closest thing I can come to it is to say it was fear, and a weird abstract sense of grief at the loss of the building itself, and a sort of generalized despair at the state of the world. Whatever it was, it passed very quickly. It certainly doesn't make me any better than anyone else.

  8. Emotions or no emotions, actions are what define us in society, and your small action that day was a heck of a lot more social and helpful than watching a television. Don't get me wrong - I watched coverage of the attacks in tears and terror almost all day long. But I was frozen in my fear; even feeding my son seemed like an unusual burden.

    Also, I will say that when I've experienced deep personal tragedies, I often have what I feel are "improper" emotional reactions. I don't know if it's normal or not, and I don't really care. I know that this is my reality, so it's every bit as real and valid as another person's reaction.

    Also also, I really appreciate this essay. I am glad you have added your voice to this day.

  9. I tuned in just as the second plane hit the second tower. Shortly afterwards, when the towers collapsed, I was upset that we lost a couple of iconic buildings. It honestly didn't occur to me until several minutes later that there were people in the buildings, and on the planes, and on the ground. I don't know why it didn't occur to me. I didn't see footage of people jumping or hear the phone calls from the top floors until later, of course. But I've still always wondered if I was some kind of monster for thinking of the buildings first.

    1. I will only say that I've been in a similar mental place many times. Last year I was picking up groceries in the middle of a rain storm. As I exited the parking lot and pulled into the proper lane, a woman jumped the red light and came within a foot of smashing my little car with her SUV. I spent the next several minutes relieved that she hadn't damaged my family's on car. It took those minutes for me to realize that, oh, she'd almost killed me. She would have hit the driver's side dead-on. It wasn't compartmentalization or anything. It was just what occurred to me first, and then second.

  10. I can't speak about not feeling anything, because I had very strong feelings of empathy, horror, and shock; but I can understand how where you were at that time influenced what you felt and didn't feel. You weren't there. You didn't know anyone there. But you were in the dorm and acted compassionately to your friend, and that's important. You were kind.

  11. I have a lot of sympathy with your response John. There is a narrative about what we are supposed to feel about events and if we don't respond in that way we are somehow deemed inhuman. Your writing shows you recognise this was a terrible event, that people died, that Bush & co did was equally terrible. I think that shows you care. But it didn't make you weep. Doesn't make you a bad person. You experienced it differently from the rest of the world.

    9/11 was a terrible day, and I did experience shock, sorrow and anger. But also I felt this was wrong. Why should I weep more for western lives than the lives of people dying in the Middle East or Africa or South America? Why am I supposed to feel more for them?

    So - I didn't feel nothing, but my emotions were not all in keeping with the narrative either. Good on you for being so honest

  12. I remember being in shock when we turned on the news that morning. Being on the West Coast, I felt no sense of panic or fear. More than anything, I remember feeling an overwhelming emptiness. I couldn't believe it was real and I felt helpless in my little apartment, rushing to get ready for work while listening to the news and sneaking peeks at the television as I moved from room-to-room. I knew people who stayed home from work because they thought something might happen here, and I thought that was crazy. When I got to work, we actually watched the coverage for about an hour then went on with our daily activities.

    It wasn't until the following days that I was truly sad. As the stories unfolded about what really happened and how many lives were lost, the tears came. Becoming a mother gave me an entirely new appreciation for life. The fact that all those people had mothers mourning them or they themselves were mothers struck a chord with me because I never imagine losing my own child.

    I am not a fan of 24-hour news and I grew tired of the rehash. The impact is lost when you see it on an hourly replay. I avoided it as much as I could, which wasn't too hard since I worked full-time, commuted, and had a 2-year-old. On the anniversaries, I still feel somber and always take a moment to reflect on those who were lost or those who lost so much and I appreciate that people honor the memories of those people directly affected.

    As for this post, while I don't care for the title, I appreciate your honesty in sharing this with everyone. It's not easy to share something so personal, especially when it's contradictory to what so many others felt or thought on that day. We have no control over our gut reactions. It is who we are. It's how we're made. What we do have control over is our behavior. You didn't condemn others for their reactions. You showed them respect and quietly went on your way. There is honor in that.

  13. I felt bad for the people in the Towers, but my strongest emotions were for those guys and gals with the police and fire departments who were rushing in to help and had the buildings fall down on them. Remembering their selfless heroism gets me a little verklempt, even now.

    In the aftermath, the years that followed, those that didn't get crushed by the falling rubble and faced long battles with failing health...when I see those folks it gets to me, too. (And when I see what it took to get them some help, it makes me furious.)

    But, I "get" where you are coming from, John. I don't get all wound up over the anniversary. I am frankly uncomfortable with many of the jingoistic posts about 9/11 I see on FB each year. They are a painful reminder of how a reckless US President and his administration used the raw emotions of 9/11 to launch a war against Iraq under false pretenses, and then rewrote the mission objectives after the invasion turned up none of the WMD's he'd promised were waiting to be used against us.

  14. Your story reminds me of when I open presents in front of my grandmother. She is watching me, intensely. I know I have to love it, REALLY love it, or she'll be pissed. The problem is, over the years I've become quite the actress. Over the top loving it. Most times I don't even notice what she's gotten me. I may have liked it, but I'll never know, because I was too busy playing the part I knew she expected of me.

  15. I think what you can easily take from your wonderfully honest writing here, and many of these responses... is that there really is no "right" reaction to something like this.

    I'm weird (ok, I have yet to meet a person who isn't a little strange here and there). But, like Janet, I am incredibly empathetic. Even if I've never been there, I find it very easy to imagine myself in someone else's shoes and feel empathy for them. I'm also quite introverted, and often feel as though I'm standing on the "outside looking in" and I know what the "right" thing to feel probably is, and am wondering why I'm not feeling it or at least expressing it.

    Also, like Melanie... I HATE opening presents in front of people. Even if I open the item and it contains the absolute desire of my heart, my response always feels wooden and delayed from my perspective.

    As far as 9/11 - I missed a lot of it at first because I had an 8am class - which I went to, and then went back to bed. Nobody had heard anything at that time... then a friend came charging into our room, woke us all up by shouting, "We're at WAR! We're at WAR!" Which wasn't the most pleasant thing to wake up to, nor did it seem very realistic.

    Then she snapped on the television and I just sat there in my loft with tears pouring down my face. Partially because I'm empathetic, partially because it still seemed very surreal and foggy as I don't wake up real quickly... ever. There was the overwhelming desire to make sure my family was okay... and somewhat irrational, as they were nowhere near NY or DC. And then a whole 'nother slew of feelings when all the stuff came out about Todd Beamer, because he was a fellow alum of the high school I attended, and though I never knew him (as he was quite a bit older than me) he was best friends/roommates with one of my favorite high school teachers... so that made it feel a bit closer to home.

    On the whole, I don't post a bunch of stuff about it on facebook (as fb is already saturated by the time I get to it), and I much prefer to remember my brother's wedding. :) That is not to downplay anybody else's loss, as I know they will never "get over it" - sort of like you posted about in "How Jay Processes Grief" - "Over it and not over it are nonsensical terms."

    And now I've posted a novel (probably a disjointed and haphazard novel at that) on your comments section. :) Thank you for posting.


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