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9/11: It’s all I’ve ever known

I was six years old in New York City when the Towers fell. For the lucky ones, life just moved on

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Aaron White
10 September 2021, 7.00am
My sister in front of a fire truck on September 12, 2001
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Gayle Ruskin, All rights reserved

I was six years old on September 11, 2001. It was a gorgeous day – there was not a cloud in the deep blue sky. At 8am my father dropped me and my sister off at our school in the East Village.

At about 9am my first-grade class abruptly stopped when the principal walked in. She gathered us in the communal area, raised her arms in the air and demonstrated with alternating fingers that airplanes had just hit two really tall buildings close to the school. Class would be ending early that day and our parents were coming to pick us up.

After a few hours my mother arrived. The three of us walked downtown. I remember standing on Delancey Street and watching droves of people walking in unison across the Williamsburg Bridge towards Brooklyn. There were no cars. No one was talking or running. It was surreal.

We walked south towards our apartment, located on the edge of Chinatown. We turned on the analogue TV but it didn’t work because the main antenna was located on top of one of the Towers.

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My mother told us that we were going to walk to the site of the buildings to see what was going on. We lived less than a mile away from the Towers. She said it was OK because the dark cloud of smoke was not coming our way – it was going to Brooklyn.

It seemed as if we were the only ones walking south. Everyone else was walking towards us covered in white ash. I remember seeing really old churches with the doors wide open telling people to come inside. We eventually came to an impasse as a police officer told us we couldn’t walk any further. So we returned home.

The next day, on September 12, my mother told us that we were going with her to St Vincent's Hospital in the West Village to donate blood for the survivors. We passed a large firehouse with dozens of people gathered outside, staring at fire trucks covered with debris, and inscribed with sentiments such as: “Thank you”, “We love you”, and “To all the brave men”.

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My sister and me on Fifth Avenue, September 12, 2001 | Gayle Ruskin, All rights reserved

Outside the hospital dozens of people were just staring and crying. I didn’t understand what was going on. So my mother told us that the nurses standing next to the gurneys were waiting for survivors – but they never came.

That afternoon we went to the playground across from our apartment to meet our friends. The dark, dense cloud of smoke was floating away from Manhattan to Brooklyn. I remember hearing parents saying: “Should we stay? Should we go? Are we hurting our kids?” My parents decided to stay.

The smell of smoke was in the air for over a month. My sister and I returned to school after several weeks when the streets downtown reopened to cars and buses. I don’t remember discussing what happened with my teachers. Some of my classmates and friends lost family members – it was very sombre.

On my block there was a small Egyptian restaurant. The owners were frightened by the rise in Islamophobic hate crimes. They hung huge American flags all over the windows. They kept repeating: “Why are they picking on us Egyptians – we had nothing to do with this.” Middle Eastern taxi drivers hung American flags from their rear view mirrors.

We were the lucky ones. We didn’t face the state-sanctioned surveillance of Muslim communities across the city that had covertly infiltrated local mosques.

Every year in school we would have a ‘moment of silence’. Some of my friends would always stay silent longer than others. In 2002 the city started to commemorate 9/11 by shining two massive lights into the sky. It’s beautiful, and serves as a nostalgic memorial for a past I don’t remember.

For my family, life moved on. But for others, the pain will never end. My close friend's father suffers from debilitating lung and heart disease. He was part of the search and rescue team. He’s one of the more than 13,200 first responders and survivors suffering from chronic respiratory diseases from searching the rubble.

I’m one of the privileged ones. I remember seeing images of distant wars on TV. When I got older, I encountered the militarised police force. Sometimes I would be randomly stopped on my way to high school by police searching for bombs in my bookbag.

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As the years went on more and more security cameras appeared in all public places – alongside ‘anti-terror’ bollards, concrete barriers, and absurd airport security apparatuses under the auspices of Homeland Security. And within a matter of years our personal data was being collected by the National Security Agency (NSA). This ubiquitous indiscriminate interrogation is the only reality I’ve ever known.

Apart from the annual beams of light, commemorative services, and seeing planes fly over Manhattan, I never really think about 9/11. It is just a distant memory of an attack on US soil – unlike for a generation of children who live under the constant fear of US drones striking their homes and killing their families.

The images of war, the fear, jargon, and the same talking heads seemed to exist in perpetuity: ”Iraq, Afghanistan, weapons of mass destruction, Al-Qaeda, Guantanamo Bay, Rumsfeld, Cheney, Bush”. For me growing up – this was politics.

At Ground Zero – the site of the former Twin Towers – there is a 9/11 Memorial Museum. It is one of the first places that tourists flock to. I’ve never visited, and don’t know any New Yorkers who have either, or intend to.

For many in my generation who were young on 9/11, the annual commemoration has been with us our entire life. It’s surprisingly banal, because it is all that we’ve ever known.

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