It seems like everyone in the world has a 9/11 story, so it was only a matter of time before someone asked me to tell mine. Each generation has a moment during which everybody expects each other to remember exactly where they were and what they were doing when they heard about it: Pearl Harbor, the Kennedy Assassination, Diego Maradona’s handball in the 1986 World Cup quarter-final against England. It doesn’t always have to be world-changing, but it’s usually something morally reprehensible, against which we can unite and share a common indignation. Maybe that process is exactly what gives us the ability to keep making lemon pie out of all this human tragedy.
My brother Dan was working in the Pentagon on the morning of September 11th, 2001. He was already scrambling around, trying to coordinate media briefs about the first plane in NY when the second one hit. Suddenly, all the objects in the entire office went apeshit at once. Every phone, every fax machine, every computer, every bell and whistle in concert, like somebody was firing buckshot into a pinball machine. Dan’s fax machine was on the fritz and hindering his ability to exchange vital information with another office. And now, he no longer had any time to dick around with it. He moved boldly and deliberately out of his office and down the hall to retrieve the needed document himself. As he passed the 6th corridor, in the E-ring of the building, the floor bounced. A loud noise rang through his head and black smoke billowed into the hallway. This is a moment of my brother’s life, frozen. It could have been three seconds or three years.
The hallway also quickly filled with people: running, yelling, crying or simply dazed. They did not all have the information my brother had. He was in public affairs and had just come from a press office full of tv sets. He knew that it was an airplane. And he knew that it was the third installment of an intentional assault. He also knew that, as United States military personnel, he and many of those around him would soon be involved in responding to the situation both domestically and abroad. Not only was he able to evacuate that day but he went immediately back to work, at a makeshift site, helping to coordinate rescue and relief efforts as well as press releases regarding what was sure to be the beginning of a war.
In stark contrast to all this, I was in a small town in Sweden where I had recently recorded a punk-rock album. I was just waking up (sometime between 2:30 and 3pm up there). I had just picked up my first cup of coffee and I was having my first cigarette. I was wandering through the cultural center where I had been rehearsing with my band. There was an anarchist bookshop where local punk kids would meet and discuss various ways to get under the skin of the government and the pigs. I always thought it was oddly inspiring that the Swedish kids were finding political stuff to get pissed off about although, when I lived up there, I never found much reason to complain. As I walked by the bookshop, I noticed several kids gathered around a tv in there, watching the news. I poked my head in to see if anything interesting was going on.
I asked what was happening and one of them said a plane had hit the World Trade Center. I remember callously thinking ‘Oh, who gives a fuck?’ I told them “Well, you guys have fun with that!” and I turned to leave the room. I took a couple of steps and heard one of them gasp, “Fy fan!” (which roughly translates to ‘fucking shit!’). And I might have kept walking but another said “Holy shit, man!” in English, so I turned back to see what it was. I did a double take when I looked at the screen. Just as I was realizing it, the kids were saying it: “It’s another one!” “A new one?” “It’s not a replay!” I couldn’t really even figure out what that meant or how I felt about it. I didn’t think that it was an attack, or that it wasn’t. I just had a blurry sense of not being able to make things add up, like I was hearing about someone else’s abstract dream. But the European kids knew exactly what was going on.
A few of them were laughing and joking about how this kind of shit always happens in Europe and now America will know what it feels like. They were the kind of kids among whom it was fashionable to see America as a nation of imperialist gluttony. I didn’t take that too personally, because I had been one of those kids myself. And I was in Sweden trying to sell some angry, ex-pat punk music, so I tried to grin and chuckle along at the right places in their banter. Hardly anything was registering in me during those moments. I felt like I was on autopilot. Ten years later, I would like to say that I was in shock but, at the time, I was just hung-over, half-asleep and not understanding what I was looking at.
Then a talking head appeared on the screen and said, “We now take you live to Washington, DC, where there seems to have been another attack.” And there, framed in the stupid little box full of flickering lights (where one would normally find a laughable attempt at screenwriting) was the smoldering Pentagon. I heard a handful of words about what had happened, but now I was having actual emotions about the whole thing. A guy next to me asked, “Doesn’t your brother work there?” I nodded, with my mouth stuck partly open and my eyes getting bigger in their sockets. I heard the guy asking, “Is he there today?” and before I could think of a reasonable response, I heard my own voice screaming “What the fuck?!” I hadn’t really yelled it as a question, but as some kind of rhetorical imperative. I knew nobody could answer me, but I was demanding an answer: from the room, from the television, from the world. I’d long carried myself as someone with nothing to lose, but my brother Dan was something I’d never imagined losing.
The guy on my right was still talking, asking if I had a phone number or someone I could contact for info. I was still so full of raw emotion that I barely managed to grunt in response. A few of the kids were still goofing around and I heard the guy on my right bark at them to shut up. He told them that it wasn’t funny anymore, that my brother was in there. I suddenly realized that it was Jon, a drinking buddy of mine. I hadn’t even known who had been standing there. I noticed a girl on her way across the room to console me. She slapped one of the chuckling kids on the back of his head as she came over. She asked again if I had someone to call. I tried to collect myself and think of a few family phone numbers. I heard a third kid saying “I have long distance from my house,” and another saying, “I have a car!”
A minute later, there was a group ushering me out the door to try to go find out what we could about my brother. I was still a little out of it, but I was aware of the compassion and tenderness of these people (which also helped to confirm my fear that something quite serious was going on). As we were leaving the book shop, I heard over my shoulder that there was still one kid in there making crass jokes to another kid. I remember thinking ‘There’s always one rotten fuck in any given room,’ and then I remember thinking ‘That’s the kind of line that Dan might write in a scene like this.’ For that brief instant, I simultaneously loved him for being a poet and hated him for being in the fucking army.
One way or another, those kids got me out of there and helped me make my way to one of their houses (the home of one of them that I didn’t even know), where I was offered all the long-distance phone time, scotch and cigarettes that were needed for me to get through the day’s events. The phone lines were jammed over most of the East Coast. I wound up having to call friends out west and relay messages for a while before I found out that Dan was ok. And once I found that out, that one piece of information, I must confess I quickly lost most of my personal investment in the whole ordeal. I somehow felt immediately as though my values and ideals had been preserved. I was able, in that moment, to relax and retreat into the whiskey, cigarettes and sympathy.
Later, the magnitude of that morning never hit me quite the same way it seemed to hit everyone else. At one point, I even co-wrote a comedic screenplay (yet to be produced) based on the events of 9/11. Perhaps I was reaching out to, and trying to fully understand, the predicament of those Swedish kids. They were, as I was, so far removed from the high-stakes game of international identity. They didn’t (as I didn’t) normally give two fucks about who sided with whom and why. They just wanted to scream and rebel. And I too wanted to scream and rebel. I think the reason we all want to scream and rebel is that we’re sick of all the hate-filled distance between the peoples of the world. Sick of the violence and divisiveness. Sick of all the categories by which we define ourselves as an ‘us’ or an ‘other’. And we don’t feel like we have the tools to change any of these things or even to express them. And that scares us so much, make us feel so small and helpless, that all we can do is roar with primal confusion like blind animals cornered by a fire.
Of course, depending on where you live and what you do, you will see the problem differently. There are North African villagers who see the problem in the eyes of the French aristocracy, and there are Asian factory workers who see the problem in the logos for Nike, Coke and Disney. There are North American farmers who see the problem in Western Europe’s socialist political ideas, and there are South American farmers who see it in the tyranny of international drug traffickers. This brings us to the core of my own problem. I am the son of an American farmer, living in Western Europe, sipping wine and wearing Nikes (at least when I go running). I have had good things happen to me because of both capitalist and socialist ideas. I use the occasional recreational drug and watch movies by all the studios. I have some friends who are street people and some who are aristocrats. I see the problem everywhere I look. I see it in the mirror. I see it through such familiar eyes that I can almost never find a good way or a good reason to respond. But that’s what we all get to do at times of overwhelming tragedy. We all get to respond.
I realize that Dan’s fax machine didn’t save him or kill him. But it did deliver him a unique perspective, a story all his own that he could use as a vehicle on which to transport his fears, dreams and values. It made his experience into a narrative that can help him share his beliefs and priorities. And the kids in Sweden did the same for me. The ones who helped me didn’t help Dan live, and the ones who laughed didn’t almost kill him. But they all populated my story. They built me a framework over which I could convey that I’m terrified of violence and that I’m so overwhelmed by all the fear and hate in the world that I sometimes say nothing because I don’t know what else to do. And I want to hug my brother, and I want to hug all the Swedish punker kids. I want to hug the buildings, the fax machines, and all the political books. I want to understand everyone and make all the little bullshit just go away. And I don’t know how to explain this to anyone until the next big, terrible disaster, after which everyone will momentarily understand.