Establishing Shot of a Nightmare

Establishing Shot of a Nightmare September 11, 2018


It’s that day again.

It’s the seventeenth anniversary of the bloodiest day on American soil.

People who were babies during the 9/11 attacks are old enough to vote or close to it this year. They’re finishing high school, starting college,working jobs, driving cars. I don’t know why that’s so strange to me: that there are adults or people who are almost adults who can’t remember what it was like before the 9/11 terrorist attack– for whom a post-9/11 America is the normal America.

Every year I try to express what it was like, and every year I just don’t think I’ve done it justice.

Mine was such a strange point of view from which to witness history, anyway. I didn’t pay attention to what was going on in the real world. I was a bookish homeschooled teenager who wouldn’t have paid attention to anything the popular culture was doing even if that were encouraged by my Charismatic mother. I read Charles Dickens, Victor Hugo and J. R. R. Tolkein. I could have told you far more about elves and hobbits and about Victorian England than I could about the world I lived in. I didn’t watch TV very often. I don’t think we had internet in our house yet, but if we did it was dial-up and I was only allowed to use it for thirty minutes a day, to keep the phone lines clear. We didn’t have cell phones because they were a waste of money, something decadent and trendy rich people carried, and they were an annoyance when they rang in public.

My father was an attorney whose office was in his house, so magazine companies sent him lots of free subscriptions, “to be placed in your waiting room.” I read them. I read Reader’s Digest and Newsweek, sometimes National Review. I remember that one of those publications had run an article called “He Wants You Dead,” about someone named Osama Bin Laden who hated Americans for some reason. It ran some time in the summer of 2001, and I read it with interest. It surprised me. I had the vague idea that foreigners liked Americans, but I don’t know why I thought that.

I flew on a plane, unaccompanied, to visit my cousins from time to time. It was very easy to get on a plane. Airports were fun places; sometimes people went there just to watch the planes take off and land.

I knew that if you wanted to show the audience that a movie or a television show was taking place in New York City, you did so with an establishing shot of the Twin Towers. The Twin Towers were synonymous with New York. You saw the Twin Towers on television and thought about the strange city of New York, which might as well have been a different planet than Columbus, Ohio. My father said New York was a crime-riddled nightmare, but I wanted to go to go there and see it for myself. I wanted to see the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and watch Les Miserables. I didn’t want to go to the Twin Towers, however, because I was terrified of heights.

My brother called a pair of apartment buildings near our house “the twin towers” and I always corrected him. There was only one set of buildings called the Twin Towers, and they were in New York.

All of this was normal to me. It was the only world I knew.

One day I was at home, reading, while my mother and younger siblings were away at a tutoring co-op. My father ran in yelling– he’d been with a client who had a son in New York, and the son had called him.

I turned on the television to see the Twin Towers.

There was only one.

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