Remembering September 11th, 2001:
A Culture Infused with War
For four days I sat in front of the television unable to move. I watched the towers being hit over and over in constant replay with camera zoom-ins of office workers jumping, even of a man and a woman holding hands as they jumped. I started having nightmares soon after.
On the actual day of September 11, 2001, I had had an appointment to be in lower Manhattan at 9 a.m. that Tuesday at Borough of Manhattan Community College two blocks away from the Twin Towers. But it had been cancelled. Had it not, I would have been down there when the planes hit.
That day at my college, some of us went to our offices and desks and sat in stunned silence. A coworker, a Muslim woman, came up to me and said, “These are not Muslims.”
I could see how upset she was. I told her that I was worried about her, knowing she could be a target for hate crime since she lived in an area which is mostly Palestinian and Muslim. I knew there would be reprisals and bias attacks from those Americans that make me more fearful of my own country than I am of any terrorist. She said that she would be okay but thanked me. The college closed and we headed home.
Four years later, I started taking photographs of 9-11 memorials around my home state: New Jersey. My state paid a heavy price on 9-11, almost a thousand perished, one-third the total lives lost. As I travelled from place to place, I discovered the event’s memory in murals painted by street artists, on the sides of gas stations, as folk art on people’d front lawns, or in memorials. In the end, spending time at each memorial, honoring objects left behind in remembrance helped me deal with some of the emotions I had for all those who perished.
My first thought after 9-11 was that we should build hospitals and schools, not drop bombs and roll tanks over innocent people. But I’ll admit I also felt a gut rage, a craving for revenge. I passed a local mosque on my way to and from the college and I felt angry that many of these Muslims were sympathetic to Al-Qaida and even supported it. The FBI did a sweep of local businesses inPaterson that collected money for an anti-Israel terrorist organization.
Those vengeful feelings soon passed. First of all, many of my friends and students were Muslim and they were just as enraged as I was and just as grief-stricken. The religion itself wasn’t to blame. I had a Syrian-born Muslim student in class who had joined the Army and because he spoke Arabic was being deployed. He told me how anti-Arab whites drove through his neighborhood shouting obscenities and had threatened his mother who wore the headscarf. And here he was serving his country, risking his life.
There has always been this stigma that if you are anti-war that you are anti-American, that you hate your country and what it stands for. I saw this all throughout Vietnam. After 9-11, U.S. flag lapel pins and patches sprouted everywhere. Car windows flew American flags. Baseball and football players wore flag decals on helmets and jerseys. I wonder at the strange connection between nationalist pride and sports. You never see anti-war or anti-Bush signs or bumper stickers at sporting events. It is like being an Obama supporter at a NASCAR rally.
And what I find particularly odd is how our culture seems to have been infused with the war. On HBO there is a new series titled “Generation Kill” by the writers of “The Wire.” This is the first time that I can recall a war show on television being aired before the war even ends. That never happened with World War II, or Korea, or Vietnam.
How our culture uses war and the military to sell cargo pants and camouflage clothing at Target’s and Kohl’s is something that disturbs me.
What impressed and moved me most were the items family members and friends and well-wishers left on each of the two walls that carry all the names of every victim: rosaries, crucifixes, crosses, mother’s day cards, sea shells, photographs, letters from children to their dead parents placed under teddy bears and reading. “Dear Daddy, It’s been 5 years since I’ve seen you. I’m 12 years old now…”
These memorials mean everything to the victims’ families and friends. There needs to be a place in the ground that is permanent, a place where respects can be paid and prayers can be offered. So I approached each memorial with reverence. I wanted to spend enough time at each one to contemplate and reflect on the names. As I traveled, it seemed more and more arrogant to build another super skyscraper on the same ground and name it the “Freedom Tower.” Too disrespectful of what was once there and of all those who perished.
After taking photos all over the state, I’ve noticed that none of the New Jersey memorials talk about hate or revenge. The only messages I saw were for peace, love and understanding. There is something healing about this. It is as if all the dust had to settle before anyone could sort out this tragedy and start to live their lives over again.
During one photo shoot, I walked a circular pathway down to the “Tower of Remembrance,” a memorial in Stirling, New Jersey, on the grounds of The Shrine of Saint Joseph’s, a Roman Catholic missionary retreat that has a church bell and structure made from salvaged steel from the North Tower.
There, I found a brochure box with the story of the tower and its significance on one side. On the back, there was a prayer of peace and consolation. I read and re-read the prayer as I sat near the memorial wall that listed the vicitm’s names.
Mark Hillringhouse’s poems, interviews, essays and book reviews have appeared in the American Poetry Review, The Chicago Tribune, The New Jersey Monthly, The New York Times, The Paris Review, and many others. He has been twice nominated for a Pushcart Prize and has won several fellowships from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts. He teaches writing at Passaic County Community College and has an MFA from Fairleigh Dickinson University.