Ten years ago on this day, I was living in a city called Piracicaba, which is located in the state of São Paulo in Brazil. I had at that point been in Brazil for about a month of my year-long exchange student adventure I had decided to embark on at the age of 17.
I remember coming home from school and finding my Brazilian host mother cooking in the kitchen. The TV was on, but muted. I put down my backpack, probably got a soda from the refrigerator and attempted to exchange a few words with my host mom with my anything-but-fluent Portuguese. While chatting with her, I was glancing at the TV screen, first thinking I was looking at some sort of a movie trailer – until I realized there was a logo of a news network on the bottom, with alerts and scary messages scrolling down the bottom of the screen. I asked my mom if she knew what had happened, but she had not been paying attention to the news. I turned on the sound, searched for CNN, and sat down. And then I sat. For hour, maybe two, staring at the TV screen, seeing the image of the two towers collapsing over and over again. Though I was not an American, and at that time in my life had much less ties to America than I do now, it was still hard to get that image out of my head. We had American exchange students in Piracicaba, and their grief, panic, fear, confusion and helplessness was overwhelming. We all knew something had changed, not only for Americans but for most of the world, and certain level of security and comfort many had been used to was now lost.
Ten years later, the city has mostly recovered. The skyline of downtown Manhattan is not what it was before, but it is reshaping itself to a new form. The Memorial site is close to being finished, with fountains, salvaged trees, engraved names and pieces of the old towers reminding visitors of what once was, and what was lost on that day. Americans don’t need to be reminded of what was lost, though. The events of that day won’t be forgotten, but are kept alive in both individual and collective memory of Americans. On days when the city is on high alert, we all know why there are big groups of law enforcement officers in places like Grand Central Station or Times Square and we know what threat we are being protected from. When we have to take off our shoes before going through security and when we are asked to leave out liquids from our carry-on luggage, we know why that is. Mostly, we don’t question it anymore – it has become the new norm, the new price of security.
I live in America now, and feel a much stronger connection to this country and culture than I did ten years ago. I did not lose anyone I loved on that day, and the immediate aftermath of those events did not really impact my day-to-day life in the years to come. Still, the consequences of 9/11 had an impact on all of us, one way or another. America is far from recovering from what happened ten years ago, and the togetherness and unity that came out of that horrific day was soon lost in the midst of unnecessary wars, global economic chaos and growing distress in the labor market. The America that came together as one nation ten years ago has been ripped apart again, and the upcoming election is likely to only grow the divide between different population segments. For a moment, America stood up as one against one shared enemy, and then years later came together again when that enemy was finally defeated. Sadly, those moments tend to be short lived.
The memories of 9/11 are unlikely to fade, though the pain gets easier to bare. “Freedom Tower” will soon stand tall as a symbol of tenacity, bravery and strength, and the skyline will be patched up. The Memorial Site will allow the collective memory to stay alive without the site being a gaping open wound anymore, as it has been up to now. Buildings, memorial sites, salvaged trees and tributes to those who were lost won’t fix America, though. It takes much more than a new skyscraper to move beyond the challenges this country continues to face, and rise above politics and rhetoric to get America back on the right path towards recovery. On 9/11 there is always a sense of unity throughout the country when people of different races, ethnic backgrounds, socio-economic classes, political parties and generations come together. If only this country could find a way to maintain that feeling of unity and togetherness past September 11th, too.