“I really think the way we responded at the time made sense,” one of my poets, Jaime Lawrence, told me, “but maybe it made for more harm than good.” Another, Michelle Merrill Crapo, remembers when she began to question the heroic narrative. Her poem is a staccato progression of single words per line, concluding with “Mass murder. / Chaos. / Fright. / They FAILED.”
But with the years she began to question the narrative of that day, and especially the notion that America was singled out because of its inherent goodness. After college she spent some time in Spain, where a few years earlier terrorists had attacked commuter trains in Madrid, killing more than 190 people and injuring many more.
“I realized that terrorism can be anywhere, that it’s not everyone picking on America,” she told me. “It opened my eyes to why anyone would feel strongly enough to want to attack my country. It was the beginning of my journey to be more aware of things outside myself and my country.”
For Jordan Brodley, a student who liked theater then and still acts when he can, the saber-rattling was ominous. The primary images in his poem were those of fear and horror: “Horrendous number of lives lost”; a “makeshift morgue.” His strongest memory, he wrote me, remains an “overarching feeling of sorrow,” and the deep discomfort he felt already then with the “jingoistic response.” He remembers his mother crying at the news, and in his mind the attacks have merged with the Columbine High School massacre of 1999 and the Virginia Tech shooting in 2007 as events that progressively undermined his sense of security.
For many of his classmates, as for me, and, I suspect, many Americans, Sept. 11 is an unforgettable moment from a past that now seems distant both in time and context. It was an era before social media, and it has been dimmed in public consciousness by waves of new crises, concerns and passions — political polarization, Black Lives Matter, the Me Too movement, Covid-19. The wars in the Middle East never gained the continuous national attention of Vietnam, in large part because no draftees brought those conflicts into every home.
Yet it was a moment that tested each of us, and all of us as a nation. And even if trying to draw lessons from history is fraught and rarely successful, the Sept. 11 attacks were a brutal jolt that left an indelible mark on all of us who lived it.
I go back to the stack of poems: reading snatches of words I wrote 20 years ago brings back memories of a tense, hushed newsroom, of young reporters bicycling back from ground zero covered in soot to deliver their report and then head back into the fray, of quiet planning for the possibility that we won’t be able to get home, of pausing to wonder whether anyone I know …