Shouting in Silence: 9/11 and the Importance of Not Saying Anything

As August comes to a close, the dog days of summer end, leaving before everyone the distance of Fall. For some like myself, Fall remains the premier season of the year. The air cools, football, England’s Premier League (EPL), and basketball (well, maybe not this Fall) commence and the business of work begins. In its own way, Autumn initiates a sort of professional renewal. For New Yorkers though, Labor Day marks the uncomfortable memory of an impending milestone many would rather forget, 9/11. Unfortunately as the tenth anniversary of this national tragedy approaches, a cacophony of rhetoric seems to be greeting it. I lived in New York for nearly a decade working as a public educator in the city’s high schools. I vividly remember that morning. At the time, I was teaching History at an alternative public school in Brooklyn in between downtown Brooklyn, the Farragut Housing projects, and the now very hip DUMBO community. When the first tower was hit, one of my students ran into the classroom, interrupting my lesson on English emigration to the New World, to let us know that the World Trade Center was on fire. I dismissed his concern, thinking that some idiot in a Cessna had not been flying responsibly and regrettably cost himself/herself their life. Tragic but hardly a national concern. When the second tower was hit, we stopped the lesson, gathered all our students in two rooms and waited it out.

Our school was located in an office building across the river, as such, we had a clear view of the towers as they burned and collapsed. Walking across the Manhattan Bridge in the bright sunlight hours later, I remember staring at the smoke infested southern tip of Manhattan with little to say. I still remember two fellow teachers, crumpled over into each others arms, crying. As a then 25 year old, I sat at the end of the hall facing Manhattan and watched the towers burn as I listened to Wilco play “Via Chicago” on my discman repeatedly. I didn’t know what came next but I knew I wasn’t leaving New York for anyone, especially not some terrorists. If anything, I readied myself for car bombings and the like, though in retrospect I’m certainly glad New York didn’t become 1970s Belfast.  Many of our students hailed from lower income communities. Many struggled in the weeks afterward to reconstruct their semblance of life. One girl, a teenage mother, couldn’t sleep for weeks, thinking that every plane that flew overhead somehow threatened her life and that of her baby. Some students turned sullen and irritable, which as any teacher of at-risk youth will tell you, simply made it twice as hard to educate. In contrast to the brutish mosque controversy that unfolded last year, what I remember about the 12 months after 9/11 is the silence. The acknowledged emptiness of the whole experience left most people speechless. Yet, in this silence I grew to understand the profound significance of those 12 months.

In the following months, people coped with the reality of a damaged New York in a variety of ways. In December of 2001, the New York Times published a report that illustrated New Yorkers’ proclivity for drink increased markedly. In the aftermath of the bombing, nervous “twenty and thirty somethings” had finally realized their mortality. As one real estate professional confessed to the Times, ”I used to be health-conscious. I used to work out; now I don’t give a damn. I used to go out twice a month; now I go out twice a week. It’s friends coming together to embrace each other.” Meeting for drinks may have provided a sense of meaning, a way to combat the very existential silence that pervaded the city.

Still, my most striking memory of 9/11 remains not the day itself, but rather the first anniversary. As a public school teacher living in Queens but working in Brooklyn, I commuted daily between the two boroughs, which inevitably took me through Manhattan. The subway in the morning often explodes with sound from the trains themselves to the mumblings of those embarking to work to countless children on their way to school. However, September 11, 2002 sounded like nothing I’ve heard in New York before or after. Literally, no one spoke on the trains. At subway stations like 34th street where I often transferred for the downtown F train, all that could be heard was the shuffling of feet and the screeching of subway cars. Everyone knew what day it was and what that meant. The silence was sad and shocking but also deeply moving. No one tried to fill that space with anything but this emptiness of sound, a tangible metaphor for the loss that New York, Washington, and the nation endured.

Flash forward to today and the upcoming tenth anniversary. Last year’s mosque controversy stood as proxy for the nation’s retreat from introspective self reflection to anger driven political knife fighting. The WTC remains a graveyard masquerading as an unfinished construction site. Battles over the Freedom Towers and local real estate have crippled efforts at constructing a memorial. One hopes this year’s anniversary will be marked by introspection. The voices that have arisen in recent conflicts from the mosque controversy to the recent debt ceiling fiasco lack any sense of nuance or understanding. Americans appear to have forgotten that despite the horrific nature of the 9/11, we briefly put our differences aside to contemplate how we could move forward as a nation. From the working poor to the financial mandarins of lower Manhattan, we all suffered. As countless commentators have pointed out, the casualties of the bombings included Muslims, Christians, Jews, atheists, blacks, whites, Asians, Latinos, man, woman, child, and the list goes on. In all the shouting and disappointment since 9/11, we seem to have collectively forgotten this.

Ryan Reft