9/11 -- A Personal Remembrance

By Mike Dorf

Ten years ago today, I was on an early-morning train to New York City from Philadelphia--where I had given a workshop the day before.  Around Trenton, news quickly spread that one of the towers had been hit.  By the time we were approaching Newark, thick black smoke could be seen pouring from both buildings.  Mine was the last train permitted to cross into Manhattan that day, before the Port Authority and the NYPD temporarily closed the island of Manhattan.  When I arrived in Penn Station, the subways were still running, so I journeyed uptown to my office at 116th Street.

In retrospect, I should have gotten off at 59th Street and gone home, but I had a meeting scheduled at 10 am, and somehow it didn't occur to me to cancel it.  The meeting wasn't at all important.  A colleague was going to give me feedback on a draft of an article I was then writing.  Oddly, we proceeded with the meeting.  For about half an hour, we talked about the roots of and justification for the Supreme Court's equal protection doctrine.

Later that day, I talked to an assembly of students, most of whom had been living in New York City for barely a few weeks at that point, having been lured to the "safest big city in America" by, among other things, the dramatic drop in crime over the prior decade.  I don't recall everything that I said.  I didn't yet know who among my friends and former students would be among the dead and injured.  I do recall telling them that for many years my father had worked on the 82nd floor of WTC 2, but that fortunately his office had moved a few years earlier and he had already retired.  I think I related to them the content of an email I received shortly after the towers fell from a French judge and scholar with whom I was friendly.  "Courage," she wrote, which I understood to take the imperative form.

My Columbus Circle neighborhood smelled of burning metal and what I thought was death for a couple of weeks, but the smell did not last as long as it did near Ground Zero.  Within a very short time, life resumed its familiar routines for those of us who were fortunate enough not to have lost anyone with whom we were close.  Yet there remained a thick undercurrent of anxiety.  On a train trip to Washington in October, a colleague and I closely scrutinized the comings and goings of a man we thought was acting suspiciously.  Another colleague talked of moving to the mountains, or at least to a town or city that looked less like a bullseye.  I would do both of those things seven years later but not motivated by a fear of terrorism, insofar as I understood my own motives.

My circle--which is to say, liberal legal academics--was initially quite forgiving, or at least understanding, of the Bush Administration's reaction.  A friend and former colleague told me he voted for Gore but that under the circumstances he was glad that "assholes like Ashcroft and Rumsfeld" were going to "bust some heads." I told a New York Times reporter: "The traditional way we balance these things is with the maxim 'it's better that 10 guilty men go free than one innocent man be in jail.'  I think people are a little bit nervous about applying that maxim where the 10 guilty men who are going to go free could have biological weapons."  I attributed the idea to unnamed "people," but clearly I was one of these people.

I would like to think that having been less traumatized by 9/11 than those more directly affected, I recovered more quickly.  By the time Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld were using 9/11 as a pseudo-justification for invading Iraq, I had reverted to my instinctive skepticism of U.S. military intervention.  But to see in my own personal experience a microcosm of the nation is to engage in a fallacy.  As numerous commentators pointed out, the people who lived in the cities most directly affected by 9/11 (NYC and DC) were much more opposed to the Iraq War than were those who lived in relative safety.  The reactions of New Yorkers, Washingtonians, and other Americans probably reflect confirmation bias more than anything else.  We see events through the mental prisms we have created over our whole lifetimes.

Still, it would be a mistake to see 9/11 as simply fitting our pre-existing narratives.  Apart from its direct effects, I think it has changed Americans in the way that traumas change individuals.  We--everyone born before, say, 1996 or so--are suffering from a kind of collective PTSD.  It doesn't entirely impair our ability to function, and often we're completely unaware of it, but it can be triggered easily.  Over time, of course, the trauma will fade.  Perhaps some day, Americans will commemorate 9/11 the way we commemorate other solemn events, like Memorial Day--with a sale on cars, mattresses, and consumer electronics.  That's how we'll know we've finally gotten over 9/11.  I don't expect to see a 9/11 mattress sale in my lifetime.  I hope to, but I don't expect to.