Since I neglected to write about the experience at the time, I thought I would take this evening to reflect on having seen the 9-11 memorial exhibit last month when it was visiting the Erie County Fair. However, I can’t quite think of what there is to say other than that it was a powerful experience. The sense of human loss was very much present to the space, and the scale of devastation was more apparent from looking over the wreckage of a jet and the collected pieces of office equipment pulled from the site than it ever was from seeing ground zero when it was two, three, and four years after the fact. It was astonishing to still be able to smell the smoke on the items in the exhibit, even ten years later.
But what affected me on levels that went far beyond pure emotion was finding myself in lines of people pouring over the photographs, and video footage, and lists of names, and artifacts, with children beside me in that line who were infants when the attacks occurred, and others who were not born until the years following it. I was only in high school during 2001, but 9-11 remains such a fresh memory, and yet there I was ten years later among children who were already looking back on this as a part of history that has only affected their lives distantly, in ways that they could not directly experience. As I watched the video of the plane striking the second tower and confirmed that it matched up frame for frame with what I could still see in my mind, I heard a father behind me explaining to his children, who were seven or eight years old, about what happened on the day that was being commemorated there. He told them about the attack in the briefest of terms and then added, “You weren’t even born yet.” His child then asked him, “Were you?”
The enormity of this thing is almost unimaginable to those of us who witnessed it, but on the scale of human history it is so small. Children were born on the afternoon of 9-11 and every day thereafter, and most of them have never had to try to imagine that suffering or loss.
It is an ego-centric perspective, but what the memorial did for me above all else was give me a unique sense of place within my own life. I saw my first pictures of the attack as I was walking into American History class. I attached much significance to that fact even at the time, knowing that what was unfolding would someday have a chapter of its own in those same textbooks that I carried into the classroom. The exhibit and the ten year anniversary mark the fulfillment of that notion. At twenty-six years old, unlike at sixteen, I am now every bit as much a bearer of prior history as I am a witness to its continued unfolding. Over ten years I have seen so much strife and discourse and change grow out of the events of September 11, 2001. But the end result of all of that is, for the children who stood beside me at the memorial, simply the way their world is and always has been.
One might think that children seem especially small viewed through the prism of recent history, but in my experience it’s really the other way around. Looking back on 9-11 in their presence dwarfed the event. For some people much older than I, the attacks may seem like yesterday. For me it is a fresh memory, yet also a distant one. But for those born in the last ten years, it is literally a lifetime ago. That thought affects me much the same way I was affected when I watched Carl Sagan’s Cosmos documentary series and first glimpsed the timeline of the universe condensed into the scale of one year. On that calendar, all of human history has taken place within the last minute of the last day of the year. No doubt some people find that thought unsettling, but in the past couple of actual years, it has given me the greatest comfort I’ve ever known. With such a diminished sense of my own significance, none of my problems can seem much worth worrying about, and not even historic tragedy has the permanence to weigh very heavy for very long. Children are born into a new world, all but untouched by former pain. Time moves steadily forward. And while for some of us the wound may never heal, even never is not so long.