9/18 From a Distance: Seven Days Past
Brent van Staalduinen
September 18, 2001. Gwangju, South Korea. Seven days past infamy and I’m not sure there are answers to be found, although everyone seems to have at least one.
Seven days ago, some maniac directed a bunch of other maniacs to crash some planes and kill a few thousand people. It was a biggie, sure. Attack the center of the cultural, social, and economic universe of an unbalanced planet and it’s bound to ripple. Even here, it’s what mostly everyone is talking about, even a week after. The media. The internet. Chat rooms. Koreans. Everyone but the Americans.
I was sitting on the couch next to an American when the second plane hit. A huge, silent, orange explosion – BBC wasn’t feeding live audio – and a simultaneous intake of breath from one American and one Canadian. He had friends and family working at the WTC, spent the next few hours trying to get through. Then we watched the towers fall. The South in under an hour. The North with almost thirty more minutes of unbelievable terror. Frustration with BBC World News almost in equal measure to the horror of it all, as though they were responsible for the spotty coverage and confusion halfway around the world.
Woke up to a changed world. Apparently.
I spent the day poring over news websites. I was caught up, mainlining MSNBC and CNN like a junkie – I couldn’t get enough. In the afternoon, I was pressed for time and grabbed a cab to work at the language school, hagwon in Korean. The cabbie’s words are my most concrete, enduring memory of 9/11 – he turned around in his seat, pointed at me, then at himself. “Today. You. Me. American.” I was touched, caught up in the “Today, we are all American” moment less than a day after.
I expected a reaction at work. I work with a small army of Americans, who all had bags and shadows under their eyes – a lot of TV consumption the night before – and a hagwon staff barely able to focus on helping the kiddies with English small-talk. We all felt it. Our supper break went long, but the kids didn’t seem to mind.
The Koreans were fantastic in the aftermath. I lost count of the thumbs up, the well-wishes, the various efforts to communicate sympathy in my language, that I received this past week. Life for my American colleagues, meanwhile, seems to have returned to normal. Maybe a mention here, a news clipping there, but I don’t sense that the world will never be the same for them. The news storm is still raging back home, though – Bush talking up Osama bin Laden as though he’s the antichrist.
The Koreans, polite to a fault, will outlast the Americans I know. They’ll put off their usual protests – Gwangju, after all, is the heart of the Korean protest scene – as long as they can, out of respect. Then they’ll go at it again, use the attacks as fodder for the big, evil, American machine. It won’t be raw, like Gaza, but rational and organized. They’ll have a sense of humor about it. In a month, I’ll be clawing an updated Mashimaro from a machine – Osama bin Maro. He’ll my second most enduring memory of 9/11, and will make me laugh even ten years from now.
Funny thing about living so far from home – you develop perspective. While thousands of candles are lit and the tributes clog fences even in Europe, Americans who are used to seeing themselves from afar are simply moving on. Horrified, of course – tragedy is tragedy – but there’s life, liberty, and happiness to be lived, not questioned. They’ll deal with heightened security, extra hassles, restricted locales, but they’ll still travel. Still care. Maybe even journey to places where losing life on a massive scale isn’t so foreign.
Back home, they’ll try to build on these first weeks of denial and grief with a decade of fear. Ten years from now, they’ll pause for the number 2,996 – the right thing to do, of course – but they won’t stop entirely. Others will, though, as though the tragedy of a few thousand lives can somehow meet the scale the rest of the world measures tragedy by. Overreaction will have become the new politically correct, even as disaster, genocide, famine, war, and inhumanity devour life across the oceans and in foreign places. Those bad things might be forgotten even before they happen.
I’ll know in a week. Maybe ten years.