Sixteen years ago.
I still remember so many details about that day, most of them so trivial, inconsequential, which was, I think, all I was really capable of taking in and processing anyway. I can still see my store managers face as she received an early morning telephone call from a friend. I can still hear her sharp cry of alarm at the news, freezing me in place in the ghastly fluorescent glow of the backroom of the bookstore where, a moment before, I had been sleepily trying to remember all the mundane steps of counting out cash drawers and preparing to open the shop for another day of business.
Even after all this time, I still don’t know what I can meaningfully say about the real events of September 11, 2001. But in the wee hours of this morning, as I checked for updates of damage from Hurricane Irma and wondered how my few friends and acquaintances in Florida were faring. I was struck by how much our information pipelines have changed from what they were when the jets hit the towers. There was no Twitter. There was no Facebook. I knew people with cellular phones, but no more than a handful of them.
At the bookstore, we rolled out the television that was used for training videos and stood around, employees and customers alike, watching the breaking coverage on network news. We eagerly clustered around the newspapers the next morning when they arrived to pore over the written coverage, to first begin to digest the news and to try to understand the how and the who of it. And a few days later, when the weeklies like Time and Newsweek and The Economist and the New Yorker, we again eagerly seized and devoured them to begin our journey to really understanding what had happened, and what might happen next.
And when time permitted, we would call each other on our respective work breaks and talk for a few minutes, asking each other how we were, what we were thinking, if we had heard anything new. We would take comfort in each other’s voices at the other end of the line, the long spiral cord of the telephone handset following us around the cramped break room, tethering us to that conversation, to that moment, to that exchange of distant connection.
It is trite to say it was a different time. But it was, and I am feeling that most keenly as I reflect on the differences in the flow of information, in the gains in instantaneity in our news sources, and the corresponding losses in credibility for the same. Sixteen years ago, we waited to learn the story, hoping to understand. Now, we refuse to wait for the news to finish happening before we want it parceled out and posted in easily-shared snippets. And we don’t need to digest it, because most of us all know exactly what we want to know already. We already believe what we are going to believe. Any news story that attempts to counter what we already know? Well, that must be biased, or fake, or… who cares? We dismiss it as easily as we dismiss our fellow citizens who hold to different hopes or ideals than ours. We don’t wait to listen, we don’t wait to understand. It doesn’t even occur to us to try anymore.
Is this all because of that day? Is this choking of our civil discourse the result of those smothering clouds of ash and dust that went roiling through the streets of Manhattan? Is our national patience and concord left buried under the unsorted rubble? I don’t know: I’m still waiting for the news to come in.