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The Carletonian

The Carletonian

10 years after 9/11

< Tuesday morning in sixth grade, Mrs. Grimaldi arrived late to class. As she read to us from a brightly colored half sheet of paper, I was struck with a familiar sinking feeling. Periodically, we would have surprise writing prompts, which were timed and assessed on a nine-point scale. I thought that this was one of those days. It was not one of those days. It was September 11th, 2001. The story printed on that neon paper was tragically, terrifyingly, real.

I bet that you too have a story about where you were, what you thought, and what you did that morning. And I bet that day, or soon after, the television played for you a montage of the sister towers falling in New York City. I’ve heard those images described as “cinematic,” a word I find aptly unsettling. Yet, this was not a scene in a film or novel, where we might marvel at the horrific beauty embedded in a fictional trauma. Nor was it of the news story genre that we’ve learned to distantly sympathize with, and then change the channel. As an American, the experience of 9/11 felt distinctly mine in a way that continues to be all too real. Yet how can I take ownership over “experiencing” 9/11 when I am not a New Yorker, and when I don’t know anyone who was killed that morning? Conversely, how can I not claim an intimate connection with 9/11 given its profound social, cultural, and political impact?

This summer, I’ve thought a lot about the effects of 9/11 as I prepare to culminate my English major experience through examining 9/11 literature. The sixth grade writing prompt has been reborn in the form of my comps.

In particular, two aspects of the event fascinate me. First, I’m interested in the language that we use to express the inexpressible. A prominent example involves the term “9/11” and its near universal familiarity. Here is a brief case study to illustrate the concept: each year on September 11th, there is a large, passionate protest in Santiago, Chile to mark the anniversary of Salvador Allende’s death, and Augusto Pinochet’s subsequent dictatorship. The term “9/11” does not include the unspeakable horrors that occurred in Chile as a result of that day. Despite our failure to include a year when we refer to the date “9/11”, it exclusively refers to the year 2001 in New York. If you’re interested, “Ground Zero” is another vernacular word that begs further inspection.

Additionally, I’m struck by the profound images that the 9/11 narrative summons. Falling paper, falling buildings, falling people. Falling people holding hands. I think that the power of this falling image demands that we consider other falling narratives: what else has fallen since 9/11?

I think that there are ways in which language has fallen. For instance, the event created the occasion for President George W. Bush to famously say, “either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.” As Stephen Colbert rephrases, “either you are for the war, or you hate America.” In a recent Guardian article, Pankaj Mishra articulates how this pervasive and dehumanizing language is one of many “atrocities of thought and speech” that permeate life in the East and in the West today.

The events of September 11th, 2001 carry immense emotional gravity, the extent to which is beyond language’s ability to convey. But as we acknowledge the ten-year anniversary of that morning, and as we relive it through our stories and memories, let’s pay attention to language. Let’s prevent our language from echoing the social falls that rose from that morning, and instead use words to create a distinct cultural narrative. Through language, we can begin to understand 9/11 in a way that transcends the absurd binaries of “us” and “them.”

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