The impact of 9/11

Today it’s exactly 15 years ago. I was ten years old, had just come back from school (school’s out 3:15 PM, the first plane hit 2:46 PM for us) and wanted to watch TV with one of my sisters. To our surprise every channel – we had about twenty at the time – showed the same thing: the twin towers. We didn’t understand what was happening, except that it was probably bad. A six-year-old family member who was told two planes had flown into skyscrapers asked the now famous question: “what’s a skyscraper?” We were oh so very young, but still, we remember.

Recently I’ve started wondering what makes 9/11 so special. I don’t mean to be disrespectful, I’m just wondering why this day still feels so fresh in our memories even though we’ve seen many terrorist attacks and other horrible events since that time. What causes people to remember it so well? Of course it’s easy to remember the date (it’s literally the way we refer to it), and the countless documentaries don’t allow us to forget the facts. But why do so many of us remember exactly where we were and who we were with when it happened? Why do we have personal memories of 9/11, even though we weren’t there?

It has been theorised for quite a while that strong and detailed memories are caused by strong emotions. So, to answer this question, we need to know why the events on 9/11 caused such impressive emotions, even for people who weren’t directly affected by them. The high number of casualties or the idea that this was the ‘first’ attack on the West do sound like they could cause strong emotions, but because these factors weren’t known from the start I’m not convinced that this is what we are looking for. To create so-called flash memories we need strong emotions at the time of the event, not afterwards. If we look at it from that perspective, there is one big thing that sets 9/11 apart from most other attacks: people were able to follow everything that happened right from the start, in real time.

People didn’t find out about what happened after the fact, no, they were able to watch everything live on TV. They saw what happened, as it happened. On top of the horrifyingly graphic images of burning buildings and people jumping down, the people who watched were terribly confused because they didn’t know what was happening or why. Reports were coming in about more planes being hijacked, other targets being hit. How big was this? Would it ever stop? Did this mean war? Because it kept going, this state of confusion and horror lasted for an extended amount of time. For these people it must’ve been as if they were watching a movie, not knowing how it would end – except of course that everything was real and therefore much more intense. And while a movie usually gives us a happy ending or at least some kind of closure, these events ended in sadness and doubt.

To me, it seems like this is the core of 9/11. Not the size of the attack, not the reason it was done, not the way they did it. Just the fact that all of this happened while everyone watched, unable to change anything and without knowing when it would end. Even though we weren’t there, we caught a glimpse of what uncertainty looks like. We caught a glimpse of real terror. All we can do now is use this knowledge, perhaps to understand what people in war zones go through every day. They don’t know why it’s happening or when it will end, they just want to get out. Out of their burning country, out of their burning towers. It’s our job to keep the doors open.

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