It looked soft. Effortless.
Almost as if it was gliding, quietly into a web to be trapped. There was nothing blunt about it at first. It was just moving silently from the electronic universe, like a million journeys happen every second.
The first moment was like lucid dreaming.
You know something is happening, but it takes a few seconds to get your bearings to realize where you are. Sometimes, in the corners of that place where you feel things you can’t bear to think rationally about, it becomes a shared experience. Everyone wakes up and shares the same sentiment. It’s a moment that, deep in the annals of history, has never been experienced before. War, peace, plague, love, death and religion – the deepest, primal forces that shape us haven’t come together like this.
It’s never happened like this before.
It was unreal, a misstep out of the monotony and daily rituals. Something so far removed that our reactions could only possibly be hate or horror, regardless of what it was or the outcome.
The fires and smoke. People on the edge of a window desperate for air and plunging to their deaths in a hopeless attempt to be free of the scorching heat and screaming metal. The planet’s video cameras all turning to a series of buildings for a frozen moment in time, relived often online later.
The Internet Age’s first major event.
The second time that shared moment was amplified with the force of a ferocious bite peppered with the stench of blood and fear. We were shaken out of the dream, taken to a place that brings the whole reality of the event into full motion, stop.
The most photographed and videotaped day in all of human history.
Seared into the collective unconsciousness with fire and metal, collapsing to the ground and enveloping humans below with a strange, toxic dust.
The minutes passed. Even if you weren’t there, stuck in the emotional and physical epicentre, you felt everything with an intensity rarely felt or absolved. It was electrified mayhem, a terrible internality. The absorption of history in ways never felt before or since.
They fell soon after.
They glided down to Earth, from a distance, the same way they began to die: Effortlessly. It seemed quiet. Even as the massive screaming, bodies falling from the sky and explosions were nearby, the mediated view we – billions of people – experienced as they collapsed changed us.
The filter was undone. Yeats would say the centre could not hold.
They crashed. They were gone.
Ten years. It feels a lot more recent than that.
Even today, repeating clips of the day on sites like YouTube feels voyeuristic. The day itself wasn’t just about seconds of raw violence, the psychology of people dying for causes real or imagined. It was about us watching. The inability to look away from the moment. A place where your rational self gets buried in favour of your humanity’s inescapable need to see. Know. Feel.
We saw it all happen.
A defining moment in human history. It’s one of those moments that you know, in the deepest recesses of your mind, won’t just be something you, your friends and family or communities will fully understand. Even at the moment of the attack, you know that it will be larger than you, a nation or even a time period, in its meaning.
It is ahistorical. Just feral and instinct.
Of course, many more have died in single events larger than that one. Ten years forward, the destruction of a major American city on the Gulf Coast or a nation itself on the Pacific Rim claimed many more.
Yet this was different. Our psyches – fragile as they are – were broken in some ways.
Some lessons were easy to learn at first: we are no longer safe from other unlucky people’s problems. There are consequences to everything a nation does. The innocent, or even the presumed innocent, are always the first to suffer in a calamity.
Other lessons have taken years to absorb.
The darkest truths of the day revealed themselves over time. A financial breakdown, a war based on lies, any given day where it became commonplace to distrust our leaders.
It is all bearing down in the rawest fact: our vigilance has been lost. We stopped caring about what we are and where we’re going as a people. We were asleep.
That day, we all woke up, violently.
I can’t escape that day. I know none of us can. Some of us for different reasons.
However, my reason isn’t just out of seeing them crash or die, traumatized by a deep psychic wound. It’s that they – the victims – died for a reason we cannot completely comprehend yet.
Ten years on, the meaning of their collapse, a crash into the American military-industrial complex and an official story of heroism among those who said ‘let’s roll.’ It all became a mythology, born out of darkness and a harsh inability to confront the day honestly.
We went back to sleep.
The same processes of carrying on, stuck in an anesthetizing state of trinkets and arrogance, came back with a vengeance. We were told lies and bought them wholesale out of anger, a lust for revenge and hatred.
Anything to put us back to sleep. Anything to keep us from realizing what the day brought us.
I’ve written about that day before. Still, I’ve never really been able to articulate my thoughts with any kind of grace or insight into what it means.
It wasn’t just terror. Neither was it just a turning point in the history of a nation, a great nation that once extolled the virtues of power, now deeply uncertain of its meaning and mired deep in something heartbreaking to watch. Watching an empire fall isn’t always something that happens overnight. It’s sometimes slow, happening in small ways that don’t always make sense at the start. Then it speeds up. It gets faster.
That day was the beginning.
To this moment, I only offer hope. I trust in the belief that it’s meant to turn out a certain way, regardless of how it looks right now.
Ten years on.