Autumnal Fire – Bettina Hindes
9/11 changed my life — but I don’t think about it every day
Contemplations on American Violence and Identity
This past week another Veterans Day in the U.S. has come and gone and I barely noticed it. It seems like it was just last week too that the 18th anniversary of the 9/11 event came and went, and I didn’t think about it at all either. It has been a busy autumn, and my life in Berlin can sometimes seem a universe away from the tumultuous political scene unfolding in my native land.
On September 11th — it was a Wednesday this year — in the morning I had work to do translating a press release and an article. In the afternoon an architect came to view the ceilings of my apartment, as the attic of my building will soon be renovated and I live directly below it. He needed to see how structurally sound the floors and ceilings were for the impending construction. We went upstairs afterward so he could show me the progress being made; and I could get a proper look at from whence the terrible sawing, thumping and crashing noises were coming that resounded above my head and outside my window from the scaffolding, often waking me before my alarm and making concentration difficult.
It’s not that I don’t vividly remember what happened that September day 18 years ago, and how I experienced it while studying abroad for a semester in Athens. Watching the second tower collapse on live TV, a profound helpless feeling of anxiety, fear, and suspended disbelief accompanied those hours and the weeks thereafter which remain fresh in my mind even today. Being so far away from the U.S. I felt that I was missing out on the most important event of my generation, my country’s trauma and crisis.
I actually shed tears just reading G.W. Bush’s speech with the now famous and ill-fated line: “You’re either with us or against us.” This surprised me as I had shed tears when Bush received the presidency over Al Gore only a year earlier, but things had changed quickly in that initial phase of trauma-euphoria immediately after 9/11.
I remember how watching the news endlessly repeating the horror down to the last detail made me feel almost like I was there too. The comments from Greeks I encountered, a waiter at a cafe amongst others were along the lines of: “Now you know what it feels like to have war in your own country.” Words that somehow stung of Schadenfreude and my patriotism in the face of this fact rose up in me as naturally as a mother’s protective instinct stirs when her child is threatened.
The national mythology of 9/11
My entire adult life has been affected by that event, by the story, we were told on 9/11. I almost quit college to join the military but waited until after graduation to enlist in the U.S. Army — doing so in the same week that the U.S. invaded Iraq. My friends and family were out protesting the invasion, and it was the largest anti-war protest of all time, but it was to no avail. The machinery of war had been lined up long before, and I decided to jump on board, naively believing that I could best contribute to a good outcome from within the system. I also felt compelled to experience what my generation was experiencing and did not want to look back and tell stories about how I managed to avoid service, as my parents’ generation did in Vietnam. I wanted all in.
It was not until much later, after having moved to Europe, that I began to hear other things about 9/11. Of course, the Truther Movement was generally known to me already, but I had dismissed it out of hand for years while living in the U.S. Then, slowly over time I encountered more and more people who told me these theories of what “really” happened on that day in September 2001.
At first, the mere mention of the existence of an alternative to the official story was difficult for me to hear, it cut so close to home. I would physically react as with an allergy, or upon encountering a foul odor. I wanted to push away the people and thoughts they propounded. I could not even hear a hint of questioning about the topic without feeling the blood quicken in my veins, reddening my cheeks, so deeply vested was I in the given narrative. I considered myself an open-minded and educated person, but I had lost friends and comrades in the wars that followed upon 9/11; the cognitive dissonance I suffered in trying out new ideas of given “truths” while contemplating the very real human suffering that was the direct result of those “truths” was so painful that I needed time to absorb the change of thought.
It would still be several years before I could truly open my mind to neutrally and intellectually consider the ideas that were coming from the Truther movement. Eventually, I found myself watching a few videos by engineers, architects, and historians all outlining their cases for alternatives about what happened on 9/11 — and more importantly — why. Whether the buildings were blown up from within, controlled or uncontrolled demolition, who was covering up what, when, why, and how.
To my ears, the most offensive idea — that the entire day’s events were all staged by nefarious government entities using actors, including the plane that crashed into the field in Pennsylvania — irked me so greatly that I went to visit the site myself, my need to test my sense of truth well-worth the time and energy it took to get to that remote field. The site now houses a museum glorifying the event, where you can listen on phones to recordings of the victims’ last conversations with their loved ones; the whole installation as equally offensive to me as the idea that the people who died there did not actually do so, that those voices are those of actors and not real people, people who one can meet and talk to in flesh and blood and who still mourn the death of their loved ones. At what point do the conspiracies involve the entire population when followed to their logical conclusion?
As we inspected the empty shell of the attic, the architect pointed out where the kitchen would be built, the bathroom, and the living room etcetera. He showed me how in these old buildings, there was a thick layer of furnace slag (steel leftovers) built in between floors as a fire protection insulator and noise buffer, and explained what the plans were for the fire escape route for this soon-to-be penthouse. There would be a balcony across the length of the building so that the fire trucks could send a ladder all the way up to the fifth floor. He mentioned that the building codes in Berlin have tightened over the years, delaying renovations and making them more expensive. Poking at the slag with his foot, which already appeared black and burned-out, he half-jokingly clarified, “Even if a fire burned out all the downstairs apartments, this one would be fine because of this layer of slag.”
I thought about my date later that evening, and what I would wear. I thought about what I would have for dinner. I was thinking about life, love, and fun. Not about the anniversary of the deaths of almost 3,000 people, whose deaths were used as justification for the endless wars and over half a million deaths in the last 18 years since.
Yes, anniversaries are important and should be appropriately observed. They are not meaningless, but depending upon the context and the story surrounding the event, we give them meaning. In the West, we favor annual anniversaries but every day is the anniversary of a tragedy for someone.
Every day in Afghanistan, a family gathers to mourn the 40-day anniversary that Muslims celebrate after someone has died. All across the Muslim world, this ritual repeats itself. Although exact figures are unknown, at least 200,000 people have died in Iraq, and 150,000 in Afghanistan as a result of American interventions since 9/11; not to mention the countless physical and psychological wounded. The situation in Afghanistan has not improved in any linear way since before the U.S. Invaded, (all outlined in great detail in this excellent New Yorker article).
There is not a day that passes on earth free from the mark of human violence. Turning back to look at my homeland, in the U.S. alone over 100 people die by gun violence every day. Although the mass shootings get most of our attention — and deservedly so — of those 100 daily deaths, 60 of them are suicides. Although the numbers are complex, generally the suicide rate for veterans is double that of the regular population, and increasing in younger veterans. I recently had an interesting conversation with an elderly German man who only somewhat jokingly suggested that someone should really drop a bomb on America so that the Americans would also know what it felt like to really be at war, the way Germany had experienced. One of my responses at that moment was to cite the gun violence numbers and assure him that Americans were doing a fine enough job on their own killing each other, but mostly themselves with guns, no need for outside assistance.
What do we focus our attention on at any given moment? How do we spend the time given to us here on earth? Just as I decided that I did not want to spend months watching Jordan Peterson videos to be able to have a super-informed opinion about his views (I wrote about that here), I also decided long ago that I don’t want to spend thousands of hours watching videos and reading “evidence” about 9/11. Even without the conspiracy theories, it became obvious to me and many of my fellow soldiers and later veterans that the war(s) were senseless and had no direct impact on our personal freedom or lives, making the loss of life and limbs all the more distressing.
Getting older certainly has its benefits, as with time comes a sense of perspective. It has been a long time since I wept in college upon learning — in a course on South American film and politics –that it was the U.S. that backed the killing of Che Guevara, my youthful idol, my freedom fighter. In the same course I also learned that on September 11, 1973, President Salvador Allende was murdered by an American backed military coup — another event with grave and lasting geopolitical implications — but one that occurred before I was born. It has been 18 years now since September 11th, 2001 and for the newest generation, it was, quite literally, a lifetime ago.
The trajectory of my loss of American innocence, or rather, the loss of naiveté and national mythology that surrounds 9/11 is not a new experience, but one of many American ex-pats. An excellent example is Suzy Hanson, who wrote about it in her book Notes on a Foreign Country: An American Abroad in a Post-American World. This experience is not unique, and yet I’m still surprised when I meet other U.S. ex-pats who confirm just how powerful it is to physically leave the United States territory and see how we have similar experiences of needing years outside of America to shed the smothering mantle of the “America First” mindset. I have also spoken with many of my fellow veterans who have taken the disillusionment of their ideals after participating in America’s wars and transformed it through pursuing careers in mental health, or in religious, and other service-oriented professions.
I don’t know much about building construction, about fire codes, about the tensile strength of steel, its fire-resistance or melting point. Although my portfolio includes my translation of some materials from construction companies, a steel foundry, and other building-industry related companies, I am the consummate layman. I must rely on experts to tell me what is possible, feasible, conceivable, “scientific.”.
I don’t know what “really” happened on 9/11, but I do know what I have lived through ever since. Not a day goes by that is not affected in some way, however indirectly to that day. My move to Europe for graduate studies involved many awkward encounters with Germans, all upset with U.S. policies at home and abroad, and the Germans, in their famous directness, did not shy away from telling me how they felt. I felt like I was on a permanent diplomatic mission to represent and apologize for the United States’ very existence. Many encounters ended with them saying “Oh, you’re actually really nice.!” The ultimate backhanded compliment, showing how they expected a conversation with an American to be a negative experience. The endless jokes about the NSA and whether I was spying on them growing tiresome. My need to prove the stereotype wrong is one that I still struggle with, not actually being appointed as a representative, I now see myself more as an ally of humanity, but the fact that I am a U.S. Army veteran seems to be one that will never become irrelevant.
Saying goodbye after chatting more about my freelance work visa and life as an ex-pat, the architect asks whether because of my U.S. military service I have any trouble now? I am in “voluntary exile” I jokingly tell him. I am quite happy living in Berlin — a city that seems to manifest some of the highest American ideals of multi-cultural acceptance, live-and-let-live, and diversity — in this unknown space (letting others dedicate their lives to this quest for the truth about 9/11) I am focusing on a life that is constantly evolving, slowly being built out — perhaps to house a more peaceful future.
I checked the public transport app to find the quickest connection and hurried out the door. Stopping at the flower shop on the corner, and bought a bouquet of flowers for my lover — autumnal, fiery red.