Sunday, September 11, 2011

A Decade of Mourning

Ten years ago today, around 3pm Norwegian time, I was at work and one of my colleagues met me in the hallway of our research institute and told me that the World Trade Center had been hit by a plane. I remember standing there in the hallway looking at her for a few moments in disbelief, and then I quickly ran into my office to check the internet for news. And then I called my husband and asked him to pick me up earlier than usual so that we could go home and watch the TV news. That was the beginning of a long period of nearly uninterrupted TV watching—where the news became something to dread rather than to look forward to in the evenings after work. But I sat there glued to the TV anyway—my connection to my home state and to the country of my birth. No matter where I turned, 9/11 was there. After the disbelief came shock, then tears, more tears, an explosion of emotions I never thought I had, grief, and then more shock when I talked to those people I know in New York who had lost someone or who knew of someone who had lost someone or many people. My sister knew a man who had lost most of his employees who worked at the restaurant at the top of the World Trade Center. My brother knew several people who had witnessed people jumping from the Towers and who were forever haunted by that sight and by the sounds of bodies hitting the pavement. Besides the sheer tragedy of horrific deaths that smashed into us that day and destroyed whatever feeble walls of defense we had, the sight of the Towers themselves crashing down is a sight I will never forget. To this day, I cannot watch this footage without becoming emotional. I guess this was how it was for our parents’ generation when Pearl Harbor was bombed. All I know is that the unthinkable became reality on 9/11. It changed me forever, and I was thousands of miles away from the tragedy that unfolded. So I can imagine how it must have been for those who experienced it firsthand or who lived in the area around the Towers or who lost friends and family on that day. My first instinct was to want to take the first plane back to the States to help, in any way possible. But I couldn't do that for economic reasons--that was the same year my mother passed away (in March) and I had already flown back and forth to New York several times in connection with her illness and death. I remember my sister and me talking after 9/11 and saying that it was best that my mother had passed before the events of 9/11. She was spared that atrocity. I still feel that way.

The American Embassy here in Oslo had a small memorial celebration today to honor the tenth anniversary of the events of 9/11 and to pay homage to the dead. I wanted to go and then I didn’t want to go, was very ambivalent right up until it happened, and ended up not going. I am not sure how I would have reacted to being there, and I was not sure that I wanted to feel again all the feelings of that day and the time afterwards. I feel sometimes like we have been in mourning for ten years, as a country and as individuals. I know that I feel that way personally. That day had a momentous impact on me, in part because I was not there when it happened, and that made it all the more poignant and intense. It was also the year that my mother died, and the grief of that year will stay with me for always, indelibly imprinted on my mind and soul. Although the news coverage of 9/11 faded in Europe sooner than in the USA, it was intense enough so that my feelings were always right on edge. It was impossible to get distance from the happenings, and that’s a good thing. But now that a decade has passed, it is a good thing to have some distance, without having become blasé.  It would be impossible for me to become blasé because I am very much wrapped up in what happened that day in New York and in what happens in the USA generally. I may live abroad but I never think of myself as anything other than a citizen of the USA, for better or for worse. And now that Norway has experienced its own 9/11 (the terrorist attacks of July 22nd), I understand even more how it must have been for those I know who witnessed the events of 9/11 firsthand. The past decade in the USA appears to have been characterized by a focus inward—trying to figure out the whys and the meanings of that fateful day in September 2001. For my own part, I don’t know if the whys will ever be answered. There is evil in the world, and each generation has seen it—seen the atrocities resulting from the specific evil, be it world wars, or the Holocaust, or the destruction caused by the atomic bomb. Every time I think that evil does not really exist, I need only think of these events, and then I know that it does. After ten years of trying to come to some understanding of evil, it is time to move toward the light again, to focus outward. Because too much focus on trying to understand evil will not lead to much good. It is the same in Oslo after 7/22—there is no point in trying to understand the terrorist Anders Behring Breivik’s twisted views about immigration and the world—they will only drag us deeper into despair about what is happening in the world, and despair can immobilize us. That is why it is heartening to read the stories of 9/11 heroes like Jeff Parness who reached outward—starting an organization like ‘New York Says Thank You’, which sends volunteers from New York City to disaster-stricken communities every year (, or which has gathered volunteers to help sew back together the tattered American flag that flew at the site of the Towers ( These are positive and uplifting endeavors that move us toward the light—for those actually working in these organizations but also for those reading about them. As I read about these efforts across the ocean here in Oslo, I am filled with hope, hope that the decade of mourning will evolve into quite something else—a new spirit of empathy and activism and a real desire to eradicate hate and pain in the world. It is, as the old Chinese proverb says, ‘better to light one candle than to curse the darkness’.

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