Nine Eleven Deniers
I’m a bit late on this. This being 9/11. But since the whole point of what follows is that September 11, 2001—whether a memory or a learned piece of history for you—takes time to process, I kindly ask that you give me a pass.
What do you remember about today?
On Sept. 11, 2001 I woke to the clock radio and a bulletin about a plane crash. We hadn’t owned a television for ten years, so I went to a neighbor’s house. This man had been raised in a small farming town, and had moved to another small town, and had never been to the east coast.
As I watched the endless television coverage, this neighbor joined me for a moment. As he watched the planes veer into the towers, he said, “Well, if you’re going to live in a city like New York you have to expect these things to happen.” He shrugged and walked away.
Note how sometimes the most stupid lines of dialog are the most lasting.
Something led me to navigate to the web version of the email, and I saw a bunch of comments from people sharing their 9/11 stories. Some recalling things others had said. Some just recalling what was happening when they heard the news. Some funny. Some moving. Some both. Like life.
I don’t recall ever leaving a comment on someone else’s Substack before. But I decided to leave one on Palahniuk’s today. Here it is:
My 9/11 began at midnight at a big record store called Threshold Music. They were having a midnight sale for the release of the new Slayer album, God Hates Us All. I slept at my girlfriend's house that night and drove her to work the next morning. When I got back to my mom's house she had the TV on and asked me if I'd heard. I hadn't. I'd been listening to Slayer. As she was explaining what had happened, the second plane hit. My metalhead friends and I drew what we knew was a silly connection between the day's events. And to this day, an absurd little part of me still associates 9/11 with Slayer and the midnight release of that fantastic album, which is pretty powerful, but not quite that powerful.
After writing this, I recalled a Louis CK bit about how his daughter heard someone say “9/11 deniers” on the radio. In the bit, she gets confused by this, thinking it means that there’s a group of nine people who deny the existence of the number 11. CK’s daughter probably never actually said that, of course. But still, it’s stuck with me, stupidly and lastingly.
(Okay okay okay: I’ll try not to draw any more connections between CK and Palahniuk for a while.)
A bit later in the morning, I came across an article by Amy Zegart in The Atlantic titled “None of My Students Remember 9/11.” In the piece, Zegart describes teaching college students about 9/11 from 2001 to now, and how the day’s events have become “history rather than memory.”
A few notable paragraphs to summarize the piece and learn what Zegart remembers from that day:
I started teaching about 9/11 on 9/11. At the time, I was a newly minted public-policy professor at UCLA writing a book about how American national-security agencies were adapting to the end of the Cold War. The World Trade Center towers collapsed between 7 and 7:30 a.m. in California. I watched the news live on television as I fed my toddlers breakfast. After shuffling my kids away from the TV screen and sobbing in my husband’s arms, I got into my car and drove to campus.
In that awful room on that awful day, my students taught me a lesson that’s lasted a lifetime: Learning is an act of community. My students weren’t looking for answers. Just being together, grappling together, inquiring together to find some small way through our collective grief, was enough.
My current students didn’t experience 9/11, but with the help of video, they can get a better sense of what that day was like. In class, I use archival footage of the attacks unfolding in real time to show the planes hitting, the towers crumbling, New Yorkers covered in dust evacuating the city, newscasters horrified, the Pentagon smoking. They aren’t required to watch—even now, it’s hard for me to see those images and hear those sounds again—but nearly all of them do. When the lights come on, many are visibly upset. That’s when the assignment begins. “You’re all members of the National Security Council staff,” I tell them. “You’ve just lived through this day. Your job is to figure out what the U.S. should do. How will you think about it? What are our options? What do you know; what don’t you know? What will you do next? And how do you feel?”
I’ve read that last paragraph above a bunch of times today. And it’s gotten me every time. There’s something very intense and invigorating and inspiring in it that I can’t quite pin down. My best guess about that thing at the moment is that it might be clear and present meaning. I think that’s all most of us want most of the time. Clear and present meaning.
Anyway, I invite you to share your 9/11 story in the comments. What do you remember about 21 years ago