9/11, in the mirror

To ask how 9/11 changed me is to assume that I could imagine life without that day. 9/11 became a line in my definition of myself, alongside father, husband, journalist, teacher, writer, blogger, child of the ’60s, tall klutz, odd liberal, and now middle-aged man.

I was reluctant to join in the alarm-clark nostalgia and self-examination coming with the 10th anniversary of the event. But I just decided that I’d best look in my own mirror before my landsmen in media try to define us for ourselves.

9/11 helped make me who I am; then again, it didn’t. That is, a life is not defined solely by its sameness and banality. Life is also defined by its exceptions and how one absorbs the impact of their blows. War, disease, loss: so many people suffer trauma worse than we did on that day–just look to the Middle East today–and have no choice but to carry on.

9/11 happens to be mine. I catch myself assuming that people know this about me because it was once what described this blog and thus me. I forget sometimes that it has been a long time.

My story in brief: I came into the north tower of the World Trade Center on the last PATH train from New Jersey just as the first jet hit above.

The scenes I remember vividly include empty women’s shoes on the silent, just-smokey concourse; their owners ran out of them that fast … the woman cop who shouted at us–“RUN! RUN!”–as we came out from under WTC5 … standing across the street when the second jet hit, feeling the heat and pressure of its explosion from the other side … running away … the first responders’ faces as they ran into the buildings … mundane paperwork everywhere on the ground … listening to the news of the Pentagon around a manhole cover, on a utility worker’s radio … talking to a woman there, dazed, who’d just escaped the towers, her blouse dotted by the fire sprinklers there … the tourist who wanted me to take his picture in front of the burning towers (I refused) … the top of the south tower tilting slightly to the left … running away … being overrun by the dust and debris … utter blackness … banging into cement and glass while around me things fell and people screamed … finding refuge in a building, covered in that dust, which also filled my mouth and ears … when it began to clear, back outside, I saw a black woman passing, all white except for the dark trails of tears on her face … emergency workers asking me how it was as they, too, ran in … walking uptown, people looking at me with some fright … Times Square shut up, practically abandoned … waiting for hours by the Lincoln Tunnel until it reopened and a kind stranger from Staten Island drove me to my car … opening the door to home. There are worse scenes I refuse to recount.

Then the aftermath began. There are many obvious changes in my life with 9/11 as the cause.

For years, my son, then 9, would not let me leave without saying he loved me and hearing that from me.

To this day, I cannot watch even the most obvious, manipulative emotional crescendo of a movie or TV show without feeling the reflex to well up. It is as if my pathos button is now exposed on my sleeve and anyone can push it.

The dust gave me pneumonia and when I was given a lung test, that triggered a heart arrhythmia that’s under treatment with drugs, though it threatens to return anytime. It’s nothing next to the diseases of first responders and others. It just happens to be my physical scar.

My politics took a detour. From a war-protesting liberal student in the ’60s, I became a hawk in this new war on — what? — terrorism. Though I certainly did not link 9/11 to Iraq, it was that hawkish turn that steered me to endorse war there, which I regret as a mistake — especially in light of the Arab Spring. Today, citizens are claiming their own nations rather than seeing others come to claim them. I have learned a lesson.

The most profound change of 9/11 for me was this very blog. Though I’d followed blogs since Nick Denton himself showed them to me, I didn’t write one because — and I say this with no irony — I thought I had nothing to say. After 9/11, I wanted to share more memories and thoughts. So I started a blog at first called Warlog: World War III (irony’s obituary had been written by then). I thought I’d use it for a few weeks. Instead, it changed my understanding of media, my worldview, my career. All that emerged from understanding the power of the simple link. The blog also led me to meet and become friends with people in Iran, Iraq, Germany, all over. This blog changed my life more than 9/11 but I have this blog because of 9/11.

There is a recitation of the obvious impact on me. To go much beyond that, I’d have to speculate about what life would have been like without 9/11 but, as I said, that’s impossible to do. Life includes 9/11.

Thinking through the impact on us as a city, a nation, a people is even more difficult. I am dubious of those who claim to examine how it changed us. How do they know? It’s a logical impossibility to catalog what we are now but would not have been without that day.

On this 9/11, I haven’t decided whether I will go to the site, as I have in all but one year since, when I was traveling. In the first year afterwards, I was among many there, listening to the names, and also listening to a one-year-later replay of Howard Stern’s show from that morning. When I hear that show still it hits my pathos button. Every year, I have retraced my path from that morning. Every year, I give thanks for surviving. No, I don’t know whom I’m thanking. I think about those who were not as fortunate as I am. My wife still wonders why I do this. I figure it is a rare privilege to be able to visit the grave one could have but have not yet inhabited.

If you’d asked me in the days after the event what I’d be feeling now, on the 10th anniversary, I think I’d have told you this would be a momentous anniversary with much introspection, many lessons learned. I’d have vowed that we must never forget and thus must revisit the scene and our memories, as I did even days later (that’s why this blog was born). I’d have been wrong.

I find it quite odd that I don’t want to watch any of the documentaries or read others’ recollections (why am I subjecting you to this then? I don’t know; it’s more feeding the blog god and therapy for me, forcing memory). I agree with friend Bill Grueskin, who was at the Wall Street Journal then and is at Columbia now and who suffered the impact of the day in many ways more directly than I. He posted on Facebook that he’s not really up to immersing himself in 9/11.

I don’t know why. It’s not that I want to forget. I can’t and won’t. It’s not that it’s too painful. It was more painful then, though I will say that all this 9/11 talk is giving me a renewed if slight sense of dread. It’s not even that I think media have been too exploitive. In fact, I’m shocked they haven’t been far more exploitive.

I guess it’s that life isn’t defined by a day, no matter how momentous.

: Here are my audio recollections of 9/11, recorded some days afterward.

  • Thank you for sharing this. Discovering blogs — your blog in particular — was a big part of my early post-9/11 experience. My connection to a few of them sustain to this day; it is one small, positive legacy of that day.

    I lived near the Towers, though I was not nearly so close as you were that morning, but I remember much of the mayhem. In the decade since, I’ve had three children, I live out of the city, and I’m in an entirely different profession. Like the cells in my body, most everything about my circumstances as of 9/11 has been swapped out for things new, different, and mostly better.

    And yet a part of me is frozen in that time and space. I have completely ignored these anniversaries as having nothing to do with me and as merely opportunities for news stations to grab ratings. This year, finally, a flood of emotion has forced me to participate. Thanks again for sharing in public. It really helps salve the more private lives of your readers!

  • Thanks, Jeff. Watching your reactions and evolution to that day has always been a benchmark for my own observations and remembrances of processing being in NYC then, and I appreciate you taking the time to note it. I think you’ve done justice to the obligation we all felt to remember the lessons of that day.

  • This wave of 9/11 retrospective blogging may be obligatory, but there’s a reason why that’s the case. I’ve been looking forward to hearing from people like Jeff on this anniversary, not just because they’re fascinating and illuminating (as always), but also because I believe strongly in the importance of this chapter in our national dialog (and our international one, for that matter).

    I was twelve years old in 2001. I watched the towers collapse on a television in my 7th-grade social studies classroom. The event and its aftermath jump-started my introduction to the world of politics, to journalism, to social commentary, to writing and debate, to the great power of publicness and the Internet.

    I know that no matter how my life unfolds, it is the phenomenon of the “War on Terror” that defined my conception of the world at large, that set the stage for the experience of my generation. We are all, after all, lab rats in the maze of history. But it’s by connecting with other people and *their* experiences that we can put ourselves in a broader context, and understand a little more about where it is we find ourselves, and where it is we’re heading.

  • Yours is the only recollection of the 10 year batch I’ve been willing to read up to this point, Jeff and the fact that what you had to say did NOT make me want to punch you in the face is probably a bigger compliment than it is coming off — I’ve never really mastered the skill of effectively communicating on this topic.

    I was outside and upwind of you and not as close when I saw the second plane hit. Recollections make my ears so I’m not going to go detail digging. Enough is enough.

    Write and produced a play that was raw and real and well received and maybe I’ll do something more with it at some point since its actually funny as well as lots of other things. Right now the din of media fighting for alpha bylines is just noise that has nothing to do with me. Think you said something about that distancing thing in what you wrote, though I can’t really bring myself to reread.

    Glad you are who you are and that you’ve said what you said and that you’re continuing to move in the direction you are moving.

    (Please forgive me for sending without re-reading but this really is a lot of emotional info so I’d rather just submit)

  • Gabriella Becchina

    My friend Lorea, a writer, commanded on facebook and twitter that if one should read anything about 9/11, then it should be your piece. As we do with people whose smarts and good intentions, and ability to discern quality we trust, it took me less than 10 seconds to be reading your first line. I read through without a pause. Every word hit a spot within me I’d buried and covered up well, blending and blurring that trauma together with all the others which happened before and after. Newyorkers are a great people. And the reaction of most of them during the big blackout of August 2003 confirmed my impression. It has brought hope and allowed me to raise my expectations in regards to mankind. Yet as a born observer, I barely see myself as part of that demographic… As to my pathos button, it has in fact become, and I profoundly thank you for coining the term, the meter by which I measure my own level of dehumanization, indeed creeping closer and closer to the surface of my skin as I go concealing my feelings deeper and deeper, condemning them to eternal chaos and myself to a life of hidden pain… unless I force myself to fit back into humanity, with all the good and the bad that it entails.

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  • “Though I certainly did not link 9/11 to Iraq, it was that hawkish turn that steered me to endorse war there, which I regret as a mistake — especially in light of the Arab Spring.”

    We have always known that fighting fire with fire (war, revenge) was tactically the wrong response, but it seemed purely theoretical. It felt right. (We grossly under-represent the affective nature of understanding. It is more feeling and less thinking than we’d ever be willing to admit.)

    Now we are shocked to realise the Arab Spring obliterates Al Qaeda in a stroke. Perhaps if we had responded differently, we would not now so desperately need an American Fall. In any case, the power of a functioning, thriving democracy can’t be overestimated. The best revenge is living well. See you on 9/17!

    • Andy Freeman

      > Now we are shocked to realise the Arab Spring obliterates Al Qaeda in a stroke.


      Egypt will end up being run by the Muslim Brotherhood. They may disagree with Al Qaeda about who gets to run things, but they’re basically identical otherwise. (Yes, MB abandoned violence against the Egyptian state, but that was to survive. Now that they’re going to be the state….)

      It’s too soon to tell about Libya, but they also have a home-grown version of MB. The aftermath of a revolution favors the organized and they’re organized.

      Tunisa is slow-walking their monarchy out the door.

  • tom

    I can only imagine the stark terror and horror that was felt by those at WTC and the Pentagon and on the planes that morning. So I hope what I’m about to say doesn’t come off as insensitive or crass. I don’t mean it to.

    But the US response to 9/11 was more than just the wrong response. It was the absolute worst response possible, yet exactly the response that Osama bin Laden was probably fantasizing about.

    Sadly, I’m afraid that we have lost the war. We certainly lost a decade. The country and the economy is in a steady decline and I fear that we won’t every really recover. We will never again be that great nation that we were prior to 9/11.

    It’s not the fault of posters here. Not the fault of people whose lives were dramatically and/or tragically impacted by 9/11. It’s the fault of greedy callous leaders who used 9/11 to achieve their greedy goals. Of course, they may have found another excuse had 9/11 not occurred. But it did and it greased the skids of their plans.

    But the shallow, corporate controlled media deserves a great deal of blame as well. Even the New York Times and Judith Miller.

    But especially Colin Powell, who sensed better, but was too cowardly to stand up to those he felt were feeding him bad info.

    I hope somehow I’m wrong, but I fear we’ve started down a road of decline from which there is no recovery.

  • I agree with you Tom, completely.

    Cooler heads should have prevailed but there were too many in the US, including those in the mainstream media, who were immune to reason, had their own agenda to fulfill and more interested in covering their asses and protecting their careers than exposing the lies and deceptions that stoked the rage of a misinformed public.

    But of course there are no apologies and no retractions. While the self righteous here in the US continue to shed crocodile tears on the eve of another ‘anniversary’, and parade about in the mantle of their victimization, how many have considered going to the gravesides of MILLIONS of dead in Iraq or Afghanistan and weep there with the mothers, and fathers, wives and children, brothers and sisters, of those lost in the maelstrom of US and UN bombs and bullets?

    It’s disgusting. Shame on us.

    • cm

      It unfortunately takes a very long time for cool heads to prevail. I don’t think the heads are cool yet.

      These anniversaries with their accompanying political rhetoric and media introspection don’t help either.

      Perhaps rather than thinking of revenge, Americans should rather reflect on what atrocities they committed as a nation to drive an organisation into attacking them.

  • I won’t be watching most of the 9/11 specials. To me, many of them are no longer documenting, memorializing, nor adding anything of value to the discussion by replaying over and over the horrific images of the planes crashing into the towers. It just feels exploitative and theatrical.

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  • gregorylent

    have to wonder what people in bagdhad or kabul think about this …. they have had so many 9/11 events ….

    • Yes, Gregory, I agree. That was the point I was trying to make about others’ going through more than this.

  • Mike Mc

    Have their been any alternate histories written as if 9/11 failed or didn’t happen? It is interesting to think about. If it had failed; or been thwarted; how would Al Queda and Iraq have festered? And what would have occured. It is interesting to ponder.

  • In this season inundated with 9/11, this is perhaps the best thing I have read

  • Julia


    Your’s is one of the few accounts of one’s personal experience that day that exactly reflects my own feeling of my experiences downtown NYC that day and about the process of remembering these events since.

    I never succeeded in explaining this as articulately to my friends who can’t understand why I’m not first in line watching all the coverage on TV or even going there tomorrow. Now that I have your blog to point to, hopefully they’ll see.

    So, thanks for sharing this. You just made my day.

    You’ll find me at home watching the nightsky for two lightbeams soaring through the night.

  • Jeff,

    I completely agree with you on your point that it’s useless to try to imagine the world without 9/11 – even when it has already been tried countless times.

    I was born in Europe (France), raised in Argentina & Uruguay (where north-American culture is somewhat more present) and have moved back to Europe to carry out my college education. Even though I wasn’t directly affected by the events of 9/11 (and I was only 13), I still remember exactly what I was doing that day, the conversations I had, and the mixed feelings I was experiencing.

    I do not pretend to even try to understand what you – and all people present that day – have endured. Reading your take on this made me really think about how such an overwhelming event can have affect our lives, going well beyond the cliché notion of “bad memories”.

    Europe has had its part of catastrophes, that surely enough have changed our lives. But what we get of 9/11 are merely the ripples, and they still get to us so as to make us bitch about it. Thank you for showing us – or at least the Europeans that bother reading you – that we’re only taking in the ripples.

  • Jose

    I appreciate this account Jeff.

    But to be honest, I’m done with 9-11. Its depressing to relive that day as if it was yesterday. It’s been 10 years. If we keep being haunted by this day, we cannot go forward. It might sound crass & even a bit cruel but I believe its time for 9-11 to fade into the midst of history. Just as the battles of Lexington & Concord, the Battle of Fort Sumter, & Pearl Harbor have faded into the backdrops of history.

    Fading doesn’t mean forgetting. However, America must move on & quit using this tragedy to justify further military action & polarization of our politics. It doesn’t mean we give up to terror but it means fighting a smarter, quieter, & less visible war. It means doing what the survivors would want us to do. Rebuild our country & move on to tomorrow. If we allow our country to fail because of the political agendas & terrible reactions to the tragedy, we will have done a tremendous disservice to our fallen citizens & soldiers.

    I’m not telling any citizen to not talk about it. Its now an important part of our history. But most importantly, lets pay attention to the here & now! Lets pay attention & start solving our immediate issues. That would be the best way to honor the fallen & attempt to preserve this union.

  • Lela

    Jeff, thank you for your this….I did not go looking for stories it was sent to me. I have sat quietly each day for a week blessing the feeling world of the masses. We all, over the globe, are experiencing consciously or unconsciously the waves of remembering around this or other acts of violence. We cannot compare reactions to others whether it is their first experience of terrorism or their 1,000th. I agree that we cannot use this violence or any other as an excuse to inflict violence on another. An eye for an eye will never end terrorism.

    I live in the mid-west and saw it all live on TV. I helped organize immediate prayer vigils though Council of Churches by noon that day. I held meditation groups at 1pm & 6 pm. They were profound, deeply painful experiences and I was not even on site. I am part of Life and that is enough to feel.

    We are all connected by an energetic field. It is important to hold the most sacred space possible to allow for transmutation, transformation, and transfiguration of all acts of terrorism, as we each feel them consciously or unconsciously.

    For me to view the horrors of that day does not serve the sacred space holding. It warps it. It is harder to stay grounded and not get lost in feelings. It is a pit of sadness that cannot serve me or anyone else. We all can work to holding the cleanest and purest blessing thoughts and feelings of love, gratitude and joy to help dissolve the energetic field of fear and hate from this planet. 9/11’s are happening in some form or another daily, all over the planet.

    As a humanity we can serve by lifting the fearful, hopeless, victimized first in our consciousness and then by our actions.

    God Bless Us All, Each and Everyone.

  • EB

    Jeff, Storify has a link to the archive of your tweets from this morning until the rate limit kicked in. Thanks for writing, tweeting, and telling your story. Your candid and honest description of that day’s events are inspiring.


  • I had planned a day of quiet personal reflection and remembrance until a friend sent me this link. Thank you, and all who posted their thoughts, for adding to the depth of my day in so many welcome ways.

  • Allan Hoving

    Jeff, thanks for sharing one more time – and providing a humility reset. @tom: You could be right, or we could get it back together… if we really want to and are willing to act. Hope R Us.

  • thanks jeff for your sharing

  • Jeff, Thank you for sharing your experience with us.

  • Joe

    “it was that hawkish turn that steered me to endorse war there, which I regret as a mistake — especially in light of the Arab Spring. Today, citizens are claiming their own nations rather than seeing others come to claim them. I have learned a lesson.”

    Curious, I suspect that Arab Spring is direct result of our intervention in Iraq. Their neighbor came to see that things could change in their very static countries if the people were willing to stand up to the tyrants.

    Great blog thanks for sharing your story.

  • Brittnee Hazel

    Your experience touches my heart, thanks for sharing it.