I found out about the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 at the orthodontist’s office.
I was 12 at the time, and I entered the office that morning focused only on the fact that I was experiencing my last moments of braces-free teeth. In the chaos of getting my three younger brothers to school that morning, no one had turned on the morning news, and so it was the receptionist who broke the news to my mother and me.
I remember lying in the chair, trying to hear the radio announcer over the sound of the machines that were cleaning my teeth. I was allowed to watch the riveting, frightening television footage at home only briefly before I was sent back to school, and I remember walking home at the end of the day, eyes scanning the skies intently even as I told myself no terrorist would want to attack The Dalles.
It wasn’t until last summer, when I spent two months living in New York City while interning at the New York Daily News, that I realized how lucky I was to be able to tell myself that. For those of us who live in a small town on the West Coast, terrorism is something we think about occasionally, when we read the news.
In New York, it’s so much different.
On my first weekend in the city, I was in Times Square less than two hours before Faisal Shazhad attempted to detonate a car bomb on the exact intersection my friends and I had stood as we looked at the signs advertising the play The Lion King. If we had gotten there a little bit later, if the bomb had actually worked, I might be dead.
Knowing that changes you. You can’t help but be a little afraid, even if you buy into the New Yorker bravado and say you couldn’t care less that the places you work and walk and live are probably on maps in al-Qaida’s lairs. You can’t help but notice the nervous-looking man with the mysterious duffel bag standing next to you on the subway and realize how truly vulnerable your morning commute through the tunnels is.
In the week after, I practically lived in Times Square as I helped contribute to the coverage of the event.
I spent a morning interviewing and observing Duane Jackson, one of the hero street vendors who alerted police to the smoking car, as he went back to business as usual on that same street corner. I interviewed shop keepers in the surrounding blocks who had been evacuated that day and asked them if they were afraid someone would try again. I searched the streets until I found the trio of female officers who had been some of the first to respond and tried to convince them to tell their story.
I traveled to Grand Central Station, Ground Zero, the New York Stock Exchange and other targets on Shazhad’s revealed list and listened to responses from the people who worked there that ranged from, “Sometimes I look at that ceiling and think how easy it would be to bring it down on top of us,” to, “That’s just part of life here. It doesn’t bother me.”
I talked to the photographers I worked with, and some of them told me about the unforgettable moments when they rushed towards the destruction, thinking that getting some good shots of a fire at the World Trade Center was going to be just another day on the job. They live with the memories of Sept. 11 every day, not just on the anniversaries. They live with the sounds of the cries for help and the smell of burning rubble and the feel of the dust in the air, not just the images on the television.
I thought I understood what had happened when I was 12. I thought I understood even better as I got older. Now, though, the only thing I understand is that I don’t understand what it’s like to spent your life as a terrorist target.
And I’m grateful for that.