9/11: Bloodthirst before compassion


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On Sept. 11, 2001, my roommate shook me awake to tell me a plane had flown into the World Trade Center. I got to the television in time to see the second plane hit in real time.

Then the television showed “our enemies” as they cheered abroad. And I wanted the United States of America unleashed. I wanted to see retribution of Biblical proportions. I wanted us to drop things on them that the military has but doesn’t talk about in polite company — something that not only wipes the smile off their faces but will also destroy all bacteria in the blast radius.

Only after this did I remember that my big sister lives in Manhattan. I began calling, cursing and pounding the floor in between failed attempts. She didn’t work at the Trade Center, but she was unaccounted for. When I finally got her on the phone, she told me she and all of her friends were safe.

I told her how I wanted to see bloody vengeance on a global scale. She didn’t share my feelings. There were more important things to worry about. She had actually inhaled the mix of pulverized steel, glass, and human remains that wafted across the island. We told each other, “I love you,” and continued on with dealing with our respective changed worlds.

In her book The Wordy Shipmates, writer and New Yorker Sarah Vowell remembers waiting for something useful to do. When word went out that there was a need for toothpaste at Ground Zero, she and her neighbors cleaned out the nearest store. She dropped off six boxes of Sensodyne.

The experience drove her to write a book about the Boston colony — the source of the phrase “a city on a hill.” In his “Model of Christian Charity,” Gov. John Winthrop told colonists they must “partake of each other’s strength and infirmity; joy and sorrow, weal and woe.”

The other day I saw a Facebook post from Herman Cain reminding me to remember 9/11, including the slogan “Never Forgive, Never Forget.” I don’t know who anyone intends me to withhold forgiveness from.

Those personally responsible were incinerated the moment each attack happened. So far I haven’t forgiven myself for thinking of my sister after vengeance. Neither have I forgiven myself for abandoning every Christian belief I have ever claimed to hold at the drop of a hat, demanding satisfaction through the elimination of thousands of other human beings with a complete disregard for any question of why.

In 2008, I was Christmas shopping on Fifth Avenue in New York. I heard a low-flying jet approaching in the distance. I stopped to see how low and how close. After a few seconds in which my brain processed a handful of horrifying hypothetical scenarios, I watched the plane safely continue on. Without a word, the woman I was passing on the sidewalk and I looked at each other, having no need for telepathy. We sighed relief that it wouldn’t happen again that day, that it wouldn’t get worse.

In the preceding months, New Yorkers had been at the center of presidential campaign speeches that included the “never forget” theme, with montages of flaming towers, while at the same time being told in one way or another by many of those same candidates, that New York is not a part of “real America.”

Unfortunately, those that have the most worthwhile things to say about what happened on 9/11 are also those who would most like to spend some time forgetting.

If only everyone else would let them.

— Jonathan Stefonek is a second-year master’s student in UI journalism program, and a New Yorker from 2006-2009.

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