September 11, 2004

September 11th.

Three years ago, I was standing on the corner of Brooks Street and University Avenue, collecting my thoughts about my new class on the Constitution's religion clauses that would meet later that day, waiting for the walk sign. It's a long wait to cross the only street between the parking garage and the Law School, and it's not unlikely that a colleague will step up and join me in the wait. It's a nice time for a friendly hello. A colleague appears, I give a cheery hello and mean to go on to comment on the great beauty of the day. He says, "Haven't you seen the news this morning?"

To this day, when I stand on that corner, I remember hearing the news there. Not once since that day would it be that anyone could walk up and ask me if I'd seen the news that morning and the answer would be, as it was that day, "no." Since that day, I always check the television news when I get up in the morning. For a long time after September 11th, 2001, when I woke up in the middle of the night I would turn on the TV and check the news to see if anything had happened. Any time I woke up, I would, within a second, recall the sight of the burning World Trade Center and think "That happened. That really happened." It was the same feeling I had when a close and very young family member died some years ago. Very shortly after waking, my first thought was, "she died, she died." Even when I was awake, I would repeatedly think of the 9/11 attacks, like that death of that family member years ago, and re-experience hearing the news for the first time: "That happened. That really happened!" The length of time between those re-rememberings increased gradually over the weeks and months, but it took a long time before the thought could be experienced without containing an element of feeling as though I was learning the news the first time.

I remember going into the law school building that day three years ago, wanting to find out what happened. My colleague had only told me that planes flew into the World Trade Center towers. I pictured small planes hitting the buildings and falling onto the sidewalk below. Did they fall on people on the ground? He said he believed the planes went into the buildings and stayed inside. That inconceivable image, which I would by the end of the day have seen on television a hundred times, began to form in my head. I hurried to the law school, thinking I could find the news on the internet, but I couldn't get through to any of the sites. My son Chris called from San Francisco to ask if I knew. Unlike me, he had a television, and he described what he saw. He told me people were jumping. People were jumping! I went looking for a television. A colleague had a tiny portable television with a black and white screen. We all crowded around. On that five inch screen, I first saw the unreal sight of a tower collapsing.

I tore myself away from the little screen to make some effort at getting my notes together for my class. I was fretting about my capacity to do my job properly. Five minutes before class time, I went down to the classroom and found it dark and packed with people. A fifteen foot movie screen had been lowered, and everyone stared in shock at the projected television images of the attacks. Suddenly, there were the attacks, over and over, in brilliant color for the first time. Some of the people in the room were my students, sitting in their assigned seats for the class that was to begin in a few minutes. When the clock clicked over to the class time, I stood up and, worrying that it was wrong to project my voice over the events on the screen, I quickly announced that this was my classroom but there would be no class, and the television should stay on. I sat down and watched in shock with the rest of the group. How could it be?

When I finally left the building, to go home and continue to the vigil in front of the television, I remember walking between two large old university buildings on my way back to the street crossing where my colleague had told me the news a few hours ago. I looked at those buildings and thought: I had always assumed these buildings were so solid, but how foolish I was; these buildings are all now going to fall. I really felt, walking between those two buildings, that everything we had built was doomed, and that we had been living under an illusion that the world we had built could stand.

Today, when I go home after work, I still walk between those two buildings, and I often think about how I felt on that day that these buildings could not stand. Yet here they are. I'm amazed at how ready I was on that day to believe that the terrorists had taken our world away, that the will to destruction, now unleashed, would overcome the work of all of the rest of us who wanted to build things and to live our individual lives in the material world. Yet here we are, still building things, still making lives for ourselves. A car horn playing "On Wisconsin!" just roused me from this reverie. It's a beautiful sunny day here Madison. Tens of thousands of people are coming to the enlarged, rebuilt stadium for the game that starts in an hour. I can hear their yells from where I'm sitting in my dining room. Life goes on.

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