9/11 and the flashbulb

My girlfriend, friends, and family are understandably exasperated by my obsession with 9/11. A few months ago I was eating at the Red Arrow in Manchester, NH and in the bathroom they have a framed article about the diner - published on September 10th, 2001. I ran back to our table fascinated trying to picture what it must have been like on that day. Everything eerily calm and still and unknowing. Like the beginning of that episode of The Twilight Zone “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street” before everything goes haywire.

The immediate period after 9/11 was a distinctly strange time for me. I was about to turn nine years old. I think I was too young to be aware of a lot but I definitely remember the weirdness of the following year. Everything seemed to come to a standstill. Coming from a family of middle eastern descent but also being white put me in a different position than I had ever felt. I had never really been aware of my heritage before but now all of a sudden just having a middle eastern last name made me something of a target and made me feel like an outcast. (Maybe not coincidentally this was also when I read Lord of the Rings for the first time which has stayed close to my heart my entire life). The night that George Bush officially started the invasion my dad had taken me to a Manchester Monarchs game. I remember this because someone came out before the game and made a speech about what the troops were doing and we should all be praying for them. I imagined troops in helicopters parachuting into the desert while I ate popcorn and watched hockey with my dad. Something felt wrong about the whole thing but I wasn’t entirely sure what it was just yet. I still wonder if the way I felt that night is how it felt to be a kid in like 1943. When I was in junior high (2004-2007 I think) I was obsessed with 9/11 conspiracy theories. I distinctly remember going on one of my first dates (maybe in 8th grade) and talking this girls ear off about how a tower wouldn’t fall like that if it wasn’t a demolition and what about the other building and the insurance policies and so on. I was a weird kid.

But my interest in the event never really seemed to go away. In high school even as I was getting into classical music and Woody Allen movies and whatever I still continued to read and watch really anything that had to with 9/11 that I could get my hands on. I preferred well researched fact based work, but was also in love with those shitty youtube rants. I wouldn’t say I was a truther but I wanted to know everything I could. One of the last things I can remember about my senior year of high school is these two or three kids throwing bottles and trash at me in the parking lot after school while yelling “Get the fuck out of here Muhammad.” They might have called me Osama. I can’t quite remember. It was a strange moment because I really don’t look Middle Eastern so they had to have known my last name which is even weirder because I had no idea who they were. But my first thought at the time was, “I wonder if this would’ve happened to me if 9/11 hadn’t happened.”

Actually a quick side note here - so my brother recently got married and I discovered that my now sister in law is connected to one of the conspiracy theories which is kind of blowing my mind. I would like to not reveal exactly how because I don’t have her consent to talk about it but I’ll say that one of her close relatives is at the center of a relatively well known conspiracy theory about 9/11 and through the power of marriage I’m going to argue that makes me connected too. :)

It sounds like I’m trying to use 9/11 as an explanation for traumatic events in my life, or just to explain away the frustration of being a teenager but that’s not it at all. As a kind of shitty history buff I’m fascinated by these huge cultural turning points. In music history classes we often look at Debussy’s Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune and Wagner’s prelude to Tristan und Isolde as these joint musical landmarks. World War II is regarded as a historical landmark to the degree that all other events are described as pre-war and post-war. This isn’t new information for anyone but it frames my understanding of 9/11 as an event that will always be regarded in the same way. Things are now pre-9/11 and post-9/11.

One of my favorite podcasts is Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History where he digs into a historical event that has a common understanding but he reframes and analyzes it. The best episode is about why shooting free throws in basketball with both hands (the so called “granny shot”) is actually more efficient and consistent than shooting above the head with one hand. Then he goes into why the latter style is preferred - and even how using the former has ruined people’s careers. It’s all very interesting but a recent episode was all about what he calls flashbulb moments. These are the kind of history changing events that everyone can say where they were when it happened. My parents can tell me what they were doing when both JFK and Martin Luther King Jr. were assassinated. They were both less than 10 years old but they have the answer. Gladwell goes into some of the psychology of flashbulb moments and actually shows how a lot of our memories of these events are probably wrong but that’s not what I want to talk about. I want to talk about why I think that 9/11 is either going to be the last flashbulb moment or the last one for quite a long time.

Anybody who was old enough to form a sentence in 2001 can tell you exactly what they were doing when they found out about 9/11. I actually can’t remember anything about the day itself but my most vivid memory is from the next morning. I walked into the kitchen of my parent’s house in the morning to eat breakfast before I went to school. I saw the newspaper sitting on the table and saw a picture of what looked to me like an explosion. I was eight years old and definitely wasn’t one to check the newspaper often if ever. But I grew up in New Hampshire and at the time the front page of the newspaper was usually a picture of a moose that had wandered onto Main Street or something about a post office getting a new parking lot. Seeing a fiery explosion on the front page set off alarm bells for me. I remember asking my mom what happened and I know she explained something to me but I can’t remember what she said. I’m not sure if I really understood the full gravity of the event but I was definitely aware that something big had happened. I remember that she also told me that under no circumstances was I talk to anybody at school about it. I think that there was some debate between my parents about whether or not they should even send me to school for a few days after that. I’ve never really thought of my mom as a particularly political person - and I don’t think she would describe herself that way either - but in the years since I’ve always been kind of in awe that she was so quickly aware of what was going on - or what could potentially happen. (UPDATE: I just texted her to ask if she remembered this and she said she doesn’t but I’m sticking with my story.)

So back to my original point which was that I don’t think these flashbulb moments are likely to happen again and here’s why. We talk about huge historical moments now like they’re a commodity. Like I said earlier. Everyone of a certain generation can tell you exactly where there were when JFK was killed and the same goes for 9/11. We have a whole subgenre of Hollywood films devoted to depicting every possible angle - real or fictional - of historical moments. It’s gotten to the point where when something happens I think to myself, “Is this the moment? Will my whereabouts right now be my answer to the question for years to come?” In the summer of 2012 I was on tour with Dérive and I remember we were in a rest stop - I believe in Ohio - on I-80???? But this was when one of the school shootings had just happened. I want to say it was Newtown and I know a quick Google search would give me the answer but I’m pretty sure it was Newtown. We were all sitting at this table eating french fries or whatever watching the news report and as we engaged in a sort of debate about gun control I remember thinking to myself, “Well this is it. In 50 years when your grandkids ask you where you were when Newtown happened you can say that you were in an Ohio rest stop eating french fries.” But school shootings have become the norm and nobody would ever ask you that question now.

The point I’m trying to make is that I feel like historical flashbulb moments are a thing of the past precisely because we’ve focused on them so much that from now on nobody will ever know if we’re actually experiencing one. I thought the same thing when Donald Trump got elected but he’s turned his presidency into an endless series of moments that could or could not have a huge impact on history. I’m kind of talking out of my ass here because I’m definitely not educated enough on the matter to make any sort of historical prediction - and part of me wonders if my obsession with the way history is framed around large moments is mine alone. I suspect not.