This is your JFK assassination… your Pearl Harbor
9/10 — I went to sleep on my fold-out bed, my then roommate staring at a glowing screen, headphones on, playing FIFA. On 9/11 I woke to our dorm room door being flung open violently and someone (I can’t remember whom) telling us that the Twin Towers had been hit by airplanes.
Jolted out of sleep like that, one feels that they are still in a dream. Doubly so when a horrific event has occurred.
My roommate flipped the TV on and we watched news coverage. I can no longer remember if I was awake when that second plane hit, but I do remember the following few hours rather clearly…
It was my sophomore year at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where the chief concerns were (and still are) partying, partying and more partying, with the Wisconsin Badgers football team games taking up the fourth slot. But the world of Madison was a little more still on 9/11. That was how I remember it. The world was still—frozen like an insect in amber. We forgot that we were in transit around the Sun on the 11th of September, 2001. The universe around us could have melted away and we wouldn’t have noticed because we were staring at billowing smoke, bodies hurdling down to Earth, and debris dusting the faces and bodies of the fleeing masses. It all seemed unreal. Not in the sense that you couldn’t believe it. No. It wasn’t until I later encountered Jean Baudrillard and his 9/11 essay “The Spirit of Terrorism” that I understood exactly how it looked unreal: 9/11 had the simulated appearance of a film. We’d seen it before, but in the cinema.
After I snapped out of my TV trance, I slowly, reflectively wandered to my American Politics class taught by Professor Kenneth Goldstein, a regular on cable news programs during election years. Perhaps it’s a bit misleading to say that I reflected. I didn’t. I just kind of made my way to class with a sort of absence of thought. Hard to explain.
In the Humanities Building lecture hall, similarly dazed students filtered in and took their seats. I don’t remember the look of their faces but I can still see the look of their bodies—a collective drift into the classroom, as though we didn’t quite know if we should be there or not.
But Professor Goldstein was there, so there was at least a sense of direction to the moment. He walked on stage and stood for a minute, right hand on his chin, the left arm propping up his right at the elbow. It was a very Steve Jobs-pose.
I remember thinking that it was almost mock-dramatic, as though he were trying to project a stunned or reflective presence. He was probably sincere, but I couldn’t help thinking it was all too theatrical.
“This is your JFK assassination,” Goldstein said, his voice echoing through the hall. “This is your Pearl Harbor.”
“Take out a sheet of paper and write about this day for ten minutes,” he added, then went silent.
I don’t remember the words I wrote that day, but I’m scared to think of them. I fancy myself a rational human being. A young man who considers all angles before coming to a conclusion. But I fear that on 9/11, in Professor Goldstein’s class, I took a rhetorical approach that was probably nationalist, xenophobic and in many other ways reactionary. Pure folly. Exactly what every terrorist wants, including Osama bin Laden and his Al Qaeda brothers.
And I’m willing to bet that for a moment almost every last American had the same thought. Such moments have a way of erasing rational thought, or muting it. It’s part of the mechanism of terror. Indeed, it might actually be terror’s theoretical and practical modus operandi.
To come to one’s senses is to deny the terror, to redirect it.
A good percentage of the country dove into that pool of terror and never emerged to take a breath.