I walked out of my room in a dreamy sleep to see the World Trade Center on fire, then flip to the Pentagon and it's the same picture. Over and over again, I see this plane fly right into the World Trade Center and then pieces of it flying out the other side. Then this giant fireball practically the size of the building flares up. It looks like a terrible scene in a movie.Everyone has a 9/11 story. Mine just happens to be set on the shores of the Mediterranean coast in Spain. I was two weeks into my fall study abroad program on September 11th. In fact, I was midway through my afternoon siesta when my host mom burst into my bedroom to tell me "Come quick! Something terrible has happened in the U.S." I don't think I have ever been more filled with fear as I was walking toward the TV in my host mom's house.
I am still not completely clear on everything that took place but I do know this: Members of the Taliban hijacked five U.S. planes today. Two were driven into the World Trade Center, one into each tower. I am not completely sure but I think they have both collapsed. I am certain one has. Another plane was driven into the Pentagon and a section of it has collapsed. Another plane may have gone down somewhere in Philadelphia. But I am not completely certain of anything because everything is in Spanish. The images were enough for me to comprehend that this was a tragedy of catastrophic proportions.
Today is a day filled with tributes and remembrances, but it's not really anything I can relate too. My experience that day and the ones following it was so foreign. Literally. I didn't participate in food drives. I didn't donate blood. I didn't attend a candlelight vigil. I sat in my host mom's house crying and trying to make sense of it all, which at that point was no small feat since my Spanish was still pretty terrible.
But while I can't relate to the typical 9/11 experience, my memories of that day and that time are still incredibly vivid. And what I remember most vividly from that day and the days immediately after September 11 was the goodwill of the world.
I didn't go to class the day after Sept. 11. Me and my fellow American study abroad students holed up in one of the computer labs and watched CNN online for hours. Once we emerged from our collective grief and anger, we went back to class - our classes that were filled with students from Sweden, Germany, Japan, Russia and England. What happened in New York was too big not to talk about, so we did. In Spanish, we talked about what happened in the U.S. We talked about what the U.S. was going to do next. My fellow students expressed their sadness for us. They asked if our families were ok. They asked if we knew anyone who worked in the World Trade Center. And most of all they said what happened was terrible and how terrible they felt for us Americans.
Being told "Something terrible has happened in the U.S." is the first memory I have of Sept. 11. The second took place a month later. It was shortly after the U.S. began bombing Afghanistan, and my class was having a discussion about the U.S. invading that country. An American student, from Texas, and a student from Sweden were debating the merits of my country's diplomatic strategy. The Texan was arguing that we needed to show the Taliban that we were going to defend our country, and that we don't let attacks on our innocent civilians go unpunished. We were teaching them and all terrorist harboring countries a lesson. The Swedish student countered "With bombs?" He questioned our actions. He said more innocent lives would be lost and there would be no end. And in that moment, I knew we had lost them. I knew all that instant goodwill my country built up on Sept. 11 was eroding. The rest of the world was looking at us differently than they had a month ago. I saw it on my classmates faces.
I don't want to debate the merits of the war in this space and the should we or shouldn't we have, and should we stay or should we go. But I do know this: Whenever I think of September 11, I think of the day in that classroom when I saw the world's respect for my country vanishing into thin air. And I always think how we could have done something so much better.