Shortly after the attacks of Sept. 11, an English teacher in central Washington State assigned her eighth and ninth graders to write poems based on the lead article in The Times. The teacher, Tammy Grubb, said her intention was to give the students a way to process their feelings. The poems were posted in the school hallway and then, since my byline was on the article, Ms. Grubb sent them to me, 77 of them.
With the 20th anniversary of the attacks approaching, I dug up the thick folder with the poems. The format was “found poetry,” which basically means rearranging phrases from another text, and the words were painfully familiar: the “hellish storm of ash,” the planes “gorged with fuel,” the victims leaping from the inferno, the talk of war, the bravado of the moment, with President George W. Bush declaring: “These acts of mass murder were intended to frighten our nation into chaos and retreat. But they have failed.”
Yet the poems differed considerably. Some focused on the visual — “the carcasses of the twin towers.” Some on feelings — “I am mad,” “I am hated,” “I am angry.” Some on the horror — people “white with soot” and “red with blood.” Some on the nobility of the reaction — “we UNITE to be stronger, offering New York our Blood and cash.” Many asked, “Why?” Some prayed for help, “God, please let us find a way to cope.”
There will be many such memories on the anniversary, probably with a dollop of nostalgia for that brief period when Americans came together, maybe for the last time anybody can recall. In a nation now rent by bitter differences over race, politics, immigration, identity and the pandemic, Sept. 11 appears as a moment when Americans joined in vowing to redouble their commitment to global democracy and liberty, and to what President Bush proclaimed as a “unique role in human events.”
But Sept. 11 is also shorthand for the moment when America lost its way, especially with the war in Afghanistan, having come to a tragic, ugly and senseless end. Many of the anniversary essays are about a legacy of misguided Middle Eastern wars, foreign policy failures, Islamophobia and confusion about America’s role in the world.
So I went back to Ms. Grubb, now approaching retirement, to help me find some of her former students in Wenatchee, a small city on the Columbia River that calls itself the “apple capital of the world.” I wanted to get their sense of the world that took shape after the trauma they recorded as 14-year-olds.
All now 34, give or take a birthday, those I spoke to clearly remembered — like so many Americans — exactly where they were on that on that clear, sunny September morning in 2001 when they learned that jetliners had sliced into the towers of the World Trade Center and into the Pentagon, and that a fourth had plowed into a field in Pennsylvania, evidently diverted from its target in the capital by courageous passengers.
Sasha Sleiman got up early that day because a lot of noise was coming from her parents’ room. She went in and on the television saw a skyscraper on fire. She recognized it, because they had visited the World Trade Center six months earlier, and as she watched she saw a plane pierce the other tower. She recalled wondering whether there were girls like her visiting, as she had, and what was happening to her father’s friend who worked there. (He didn’t go to work that day.) “‘The scream was horrendous,’/ People were jumping from the tower,” she wrote for the class assignment.
The thoughts that swept through her mind then are still with her. “To this day I cannot watch the images or hear the sounds of 9/11,” she wrote me in an email. On a visit to New York, she worked up the courage to see “Come From Away,” a Broadway show about how the isolated community of Gander, Newfoundland, found itself abruptly host to 38 planeloads of people diverted to the local airport after the attacks. “I sobbed the whole time,” she said.
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But like her classmates I spoke to, she is also troubled by the aftermath. Now a member of the East Wenatchee City Council, Ms. Sleiman, whose father is Lebanese, remembers how she began to feel different because of the backlash against Arabs, how her family was subjected to extra security measures at the airport. And when she ran for office, someone malevolently asked whether she intended to institute Shariah law.
The narrative from the federal government about Sept. 11 was that United States was attacked not for anything it had done, but for what it was.
“America was targeted for attack because we’re the brightest beacon for freedom and opportunity in the world,” declared Mr. Bush on the evening of Sept. 11. This was not the work of a band of Islamist radicals led by a Saudi and masterminded by a Pakistani as a response to American policies in the Middle East, but of a far-flung, irrational Islamist hatred for freedom, requiring a global, American-led “war on terrorism.”
So the United States and its NATO allies launched “Operation Enduring Freedom” in Afghanistan, purportedly to deny Al Qaeda a safe base of operations, and then invaded Iraq because Saddam Hussein was purportedly armed with weapons of mass destruction. Both missions evolved and grew with time, taking on the mission of building democracy and spreading freedom.
There is no need to elaborate here on the failures of those operations, which are being rehashed in detail these days alongside the desperate scenes from Afghanistan, or on the abiding shame of Abu Ghraib, Guantánamo, the torture-linked rendition program or the targeted killings by drones. The killing of Osama bin Laden himself in a raid in Pakistan in 2011 proved to be almost a footnote in the “war on terrorism” he provoked.
But 20 years ago there were few in power who opposed striking back, and striking hard. The poems of the Wenatchee eighth and ninth graders echoed much of the bravado emanating from Washington: “They meant to frighten our nation into chaos and retreat, but they failed”; “Hunt down and punish / strike back / war footing.”
“I really think the way we responded at the time made sense,” one of my poets, Jaime Lawrence, told me, “but maybe it made for more harm than good.” Another, Michelle Merrill Crapo, remembers when she began to question the heroic narrative. Her poem is a staccato progression of single words per line, concluding with “Mass murder. / Chaos. / Fright. / They FAILED.”
But with the years she began to question the narrative of that day, and especially the notion that America was singled out because of its inherent goodness. After college she spent some time in Spain, where a few years earlier terrorists had attacked commuter trains in Madrid, killing more than 190 people and injuring many more.
“I realized that terrorism can be anywhere, that it’s not everyone picking on America,” she told me. “It opened my eyes to why anyone would feel strongly enough to want to attack my country. It was the beginning of my journey to be more aware of things outside myself and my country.”
For Jordan Brodley, a student who liked theater then and still acts when he can, the saber-rattling was ominous. The primary images in his poem were those of fear and horror: “Horrendous number of lives lost”; a “makeshift morgue.” His strongest memory, he wrote me, remains an “overarching feeling of sorrow,” and the deep discomfort he felt already then with the “jingoistic response.” He remembers his mother crying at the news, and in his mind the attacks have merged with the Columbine High School massacre of 1999 and the Virginia Tech shooting in 2007 as events that progressively undermined his sense of security.
For many of his classmates, as for me, and, I suspect, many Americans, Sept. 11 is an unforgettable moment from a past that now seems distant both in time and context. It was an era before social media, and it has been dimmed in public consciousness by waves of new crises, concerns and passions — political polarization, Black Lives Matter, the Me Too movement, Covid-19. The wars in the Middle East never gained the continuous national attention of Vietnam, in large part because no draftees brought those conflicts into every home.
Yet it was a moment that tested each of us, and all of us as a nation. And even if trying to draw lessons from history is fraught and rarely successful, the Sept. 11 attacks were a brutal jolt that left an indelible mark on all of us who lived it.
I go back to the stack of poems: reading snatches of words I wrote 20 years ago brings back memories of a tense, hushed newsroom, of young reporters bicycling back from ground zero covered in soot to deliver their report and then head back into the fray, of quiet planning for the possibility that we won’t be able to get home, of pausing to wonder whether anyone I know …
The poems are a collage, a distillation of the jumbled thoughts of that day through the eyes of horrified 14-year-olds on the other side of the continent. “Horrendous,” “hellish,” “ash-choked,” “Mothers, fathers, sons, daughters and friends,” “people jumping from the buildings,” “police officers, firefighters, rescue workers,” “they will be hunted down,” “united we stand,” and, again and again, “Why?”
The answer we gave may be wrong, and it may be, as Ms. Grubb wrote me, that in the aftermath, it was “like everything tilted into some sinkhole.” But as she and so many of her students also noted, the first and most memorable response was heroism, unity, nobility and sympathy.
Serge Schmemann is a member of the New York Times editorial board.