It is hard to believe that a decade has passed since I was running down the street with a building chasing me. Ten years. While it feels like a long time ago, I can close my eyes, and it all comes roaring back in a second.
On Sept. 11, 2001, I was teaching high school 100 feet away from the World Trade Center. Conjuring that day — the sounds, the smells, the taste, the feeling of time suspended, the homeless man covered in ash pantomiming something on a park bench — is a blurred rush, but it is the fear that I carry with me the most.
Even writing this, my breath quickens, and I have that sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. That day fostered a culture of fear, or rather, as time allots a more critical perspective of tragedy, we simply caught up with the rest of the world. Previous generations of Americans are familiar with this uncertainty, having lived through world wars, the Depression, Vietnam, the Cuban missile crisis, and the cold war. But as recent years have been relatively devoid of conflict, terrorism, and its prankster element of surprise, has finally permeated our culture on a grand scale, and has presented an entirely new threat.
How this fear shapes future generations remains to be seen. For now, we comply with the national defense tactics in place at our airports and dutifully take off shoes, endure an inappropriate grope, or smile for the full-body scan that renders us naked to a Transportation Security Administration agent. It is questionable whether all of those photos really make it to the trash. Sure, these measures are preventive, but have they made an actual difference or are they now just mundane? When I go through security checkpoints, I always look for flaws and think about ways to thwart the system. But experience has resigned me to the fact that if someone wants to do something, they will.
Heightened awareness is supposed to be the first step to combat an unpredictable attack. There has been a consistent public transportation campaign in Manhattan for the past 10 years with signs in subways and buses that read, “If you see something, say something.” This mantra is embedded in the city’s consciousness, and when you live there, you feel it. But time has softened the urgency, or is it that we have become more accustomed to it?
After Sept. 11, 2001, I walked everywhere for as long as I could. Friends who were with me that day did the same. We wore sneakers, and shoved money, keys, and licenses in our pockets; we were ready to run again if we had to. When walking to work was no longer a viable option, I convinced myself the bus was safer than the subway. As we rolled along First Avenue, I realized how ridiculous my decision was, and had a panic attack. When I got to work I was coated in sweat, but I made it.
Conquering the subway was next, and then it was routine. Until an unanticipated stop in the middle of a tunnel or a sudden flickering of lights brings it back in a flash. Over the years, my reaction to subway malfunctions has lessened, but a lone sneaker on the subway this past spring gave me pause. No one else seemed concerned, but I could not shake the narrative in my head that it was a bomb. Torn over what to do, the calm around me won out, and I kept my paranoia to myself. The pragmatic reality of a dirty lost sneaker under some seats on the subway trumped my fear, but will that be the right choice next time?
Have Americans elsewhere absorbed the nuances of terror, and are we prepared to live in this cultural landscape? Proximity is everything. My experience on Sept. 11 was one layer, with each person who was closer to the buildings another, and then another. When we ran out of land and were standing outside in Battery Park, I remembered a movie on TV when I was younger about a nuclear holocaust and the end of the world. My parents would not let me watch it, and suddenly I realized why.
In that moment, I visualized a future where people fought over canned goods in a permanent blown-out gray background. However, throughout the rest of that day, and for many months after, New Yorkers came together to demonstrate the more positive aspects of human nature.
Sept. 11 changed me. An ex-boyfriend said it takes a lot to jar me, and he is right. I am considerably more mellow, and when a situation gets out of hand, I am able to maintain a true level of calm. After my school was displaced for six months, we returned to work downtown. The building next door was still covered in soot, and you could taste a layer of dust in the air. Our building was not cleaned properly either, and recently, I have developed asthma. Loud noises used to bother me, sometimes I still jump once in a while, and I am always surprised when I do.
But it is a touch of disaster that really throws me off. When the Con Edison building on my block in the East Village had an explosion a few years ago, and smoke wafted into the air, I was gripped by a flashback of fear. It was the same thing when I saw the smoke from a fire on 42nd Street. It does not last long, but the feeling of panic and uncertainty is an exact replica of the fear I experienced on that day. As my family lives in Maryland, minutes after the recent earthquake here on the East Coast, my mom forwarded me an official government e-mail and said everyone was okay. I was taking a walk and thought my bout with vertigo had returned, but her e-mail flooded me with fear, and there I was, stomach churning, and shaken for an hour.
I always want the drama surrounding Sept. 11 to hurry up and be over. While I understand the commemoration aspect, I feel that it is personal, and I cannot stand the media hype and patriotic verve. Most important, though, while I know it is childish and unrealistic, I just want my fear to go away. In another decade, hopefully this fear that exists for me and so many others will be vastly diminished, and we will no longer feel so susceptible.
Heather Dubin, a reporter at The Star, was an English teacher at the High School of Economics and Finance on Trinity Place in Lower Manhattan in 2001.