Remembrance Read Part 2: “If You Want to Humble An Empire”

Every year we get further from the anniversary of the 9-11 attacks, I think it will get easier to read in-depth articles written shortly after the event — thought-provoking, anyway, in their ability to either call what would happen over the next 13 years or inability to predict how life would change. Two years ago, I wrote about Tom Junod’s “The Falling Man,” a heart-wrenching, stomach-turning, jaw-dropping, other-appendage-affecting look at the people who jumped from the top floors of the World Trade Center.

This year, a different type of story caught my eye.

Thank my Twitter-sessed work habits that force (poor me) to scan Twitter periodically throughout my day in order to find the newest HR news. Today’s feed was dominated by brand-driven #WeRemember posts, commentary scolding brand-driven #WeRemember posts and retrospectives, including an interesting take on what media coverage of the attacks was like in different countries. 

But the one that caught my eye the most was one that read, “Read Time’s controversial cover story from Sept. 14, 2001.”

“Controversial” and “9-11” usually go hand-in-hand when it comes to journalism, entertainment and pretty much any other artistic or literary take on the attacks, and not just because any social media blurb that includes the C-word gets automatic clicks. When I listened in on a call between “Falling Man” writer Junod and an advanced writing course back in 2013, I was appalled when he pretty much admitted to fabricating quotes if they made the narrative flow better.*

*That’s a no-no for a journalist, just FYI.

Suddenly, “The Falling Man” was no longer a stellar piece of subversive reporting and writing, but simply an intriguing based-on-a-true-story piece. Note that it still taught me all those lessons I mentioned in my post about it — but no longer do I respect Junod as a journalist, but rather as an entertainer. “Like Jon Stewart,” you might think. Except that guy actually uses real quotes.

But I digress into an ethics argument. Let’s go back to the Time piece.

“If You Want to Humble an Empire,” written by Nancy Gibbs (yay, female magazine writer!), covers 9-11 at all angles — from what was happening inside the building to what was going on around the country in the days that followed. The issue it appeared in was the first one to switch out the magazine’s iconic red border for a black one instead, framing a shot of the towers aflame.

Time Magazine: Sept. 14, 2001
Time Magazine: Sept. 14, 2001

The image alone is evocative, and just looking at it I can remember sitting on the floor of my parent’s bedroom at 8 a.m., watching the news like I did every morning before going to school at Cloverdale Elementary, which started at 9 a.m.

The timeline of when everything happened is still fuzzy in my head, and I’m not sure if it’s because I don’t want to know or just never took the time to piece it all together. When you’ve experienced a national tragedy in your life before age 11, it’s hard to search out the details without having it all flood back to you — the feeling of the carpet under your fingers, the soreness in your neck staring up at the TV in your parents’ room as they sit behind you, fixated on the screen while their king-sized bed is still unmade. The smell of the rumpled sheets that combine the smell of Dad’s aftershave and the scent of sleep. The sun streaming in through the half-opened blinds.

And yet today I found myself drawn to the article, hoping that it might shed some more light now that I’m 13 years older and “able to handle it.” Or so I thought.

As I read Gibbs’ account of what was happening inside the building, I suddenly felt like I shouldn’t be reading it, like it was desecrating the memory of those who had either jumped or been sucked out the windows, had died in the collapsing elevator shaft or were swarmed by others because they were the only ones with a flashlight in the cramped stairwell. Their deaths were anything but private, and yet the steel and glass casing that contained all of it acted as a curtain that spared a sliver of the country’s already disintegrating innocence by masking the horrors held within. Gibbs’ account of the inside — told by real-life witnesses (I’m looking at you, Mr. Junod) — cut open the already hard-to-view photo on the cover to expose an even more nightmarish reality.

Sitting in my Chicago suburbia home watching it unfold seemed, if possible, even more detached than it already did — and even more unfairly lucky. As my (now) New Yorker friend Kathryn Jankowski posted on Facebook this evening: “Today I was so sad to be standing beneath this huge building, and reflecting on the sad circumstances that made it necessary. But at the same time, I felt so much gratitude that I wasn’t there to plant flowers for my family today.” 

But today I was in a cubicle on the 12th floor of a Chicago skyscraper, reading a 13-year-old feature that had the power to bring me back to that day. Any American who was aware of 9-11 thinks about it on the anniversary, just as any American aware of Pearl Harbor thinks back to it every December 7. It’s impossible not to remember where we each were when the planes hit the towers, just as it’s impossible to wipe out the image of the burning buildings when it’s thrown in our faces via cable news and brand-promoting hashtags for 24 hours straight every September. But just because for 13 years we’ve been inundated with these images doesn’t mean it gets easier to swallow them. If anything, it’s gotten harder.

In one of the articles I read today discussing the worldwide reaction to the attacks, one writer described what it was like in an Grade 8 class up in Canada. When the teacher turned off the news feed, one of the students asked him why. “You will watch that footage for the rest of your life,” he said. “Terrible things have happened, and there are no answers. Let’s move on and check in at lunch time.”

Lunch time has come and gone, and we’ve checked in 13 different times since. Maybe the 14th round will bring even more answers and catharsis than we’ve already received. Or maybe it’ll just reopen the wound, expanding the scars that we’ll never forget.

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