Every time I pass through Southern Maine, I’m startled by its openness. There are no roadblocks on the highways or police officers patrolling the bridges. Portland harbor is busy, traffic is often heavy, and airplanes pass overhead. To a casual visitor, there’s little to hint at the shock and fear that descended there 15 years ago.
My tenure as a resident of Southern Maine was brief, but those 11 months are inseparable from one brilliant, blue September day and the grim autumn that followed. To me, it’s a region frozen in time, and even the briefest visit evokes a dizzying disconnect, similar to what happens when I remember my college journalism students were preschoolers when Mohamed Atta boarded an early-morning commuter plane at the Portland Jetport.
When it happened, my college diploma was three months old, and I dreamed of a life as a writer. Late that August, I’d started my first job as a reporter at a little paper in Biddeford, a city about halfway between Portland and the New Hampshire border. I had a shitty apartment in a building that reeked of tobacco and sweat. On most nights, the guy down the hall came home drunk and screaming. I installed yellow contact paper on the backsplash in the galley kitchen, stuffed my bookcases with empty journals I planned to fill and began learning the intricacies of covering city government.
The editors at that paper were the best first bosses I could have hoped for, especially on that day. When we knew the second plane was not an accident, there was no coddling – just assignments and a promise that we would shovel information to our readers until we dropped from exhaustion. A photographer and I crisscrossed the city, stopping at a high school, a department store, a college. We paused downtown, where the streets were silent and drivers wept in pulled-over cars. Later that week, I sat across a kitchen table from a woman who’d escaped one of the towers and come to Maine to stay at her parents’ beach house. I stumbled through my questions, scribbled notes and wondered how long it had taken to wash the dust from her hair.
For a long time, I tried not to think about what that autumn was like for me. I wasn’t in Manhattan or Washington, D.C. or Shanksville. I didn’t know anyone who died. It felt wrong to make myself a protagonist in a story that harmed so many others in so many more devastating ways. My thinking is different now, mostly because of my journalism students. Last year, I walked into a crowded classroom and started a discussion about coverage of the Paris terrorist attacks. The cafes, the theater, the dead and the wounded were on another continent, but my students were frightened in a way that tugged at something deep in me. At some point, they began to ask me about the fall of 2001 the way I ask my parents about Kennedy and Kent State.
Over the years I’ve developed a September tradition of reading E.B. White’s 1949 essay “Here is New York.” It’s a sweeping meditation of the city’s speedy post-war evolution, beautiful, chaotic and, as he writes in this passage, terrifying:
“The city, for the first time in its long history, is destructible. A single flight of planes no bigger than a wedge of geese can quickly end this island fantasy, burn the towers, crumble the bridges, turn the underground passages into lethal chambers, cremate the millions. The intimation of mortality is part of New York now: in the sound of jets overhead, in the black headlines of the latest edition. All dwellers in cities must live with the stubborn fact of annihilation.”
We no longer need to live in physical cities to feel this kind of geographic vulnerability. We spend our days inside a sprawling, digital metropolis of videos and photos. Every place can feel like our place. Paris. San Bernardino. Brussels. Ankara. Orlando. The shattering headlines aren’t one giant break but an evolving tangle of tiny, thread-like fractures.
Two weeks ago, I met a new batch of bright journalism students. I hope we make it through this year without another act of violence that spurs questions about where I was – about who I was – on that day 15 years ago.
That is, alas, unlikely.
When it happens, we’ll look at the news alerts, analyze the credibility of facts, critique the narratives that emerge. If they ask about that time I lived so briefly in Southern Maine, I’ll answer. I’ll also tell them this: We were not annihilated then. By embracing knowledge and compassion and grace, we will not be annihilated now.