Communication and Healing: Coming to Terms with the Post-9/11 World

by Caitlin James

On the morning of Tuesday, September 11, 2001, I was in a first-grade classroom in Connecticut, learning to read and add and jump rope. Nothing alerted me to the horror and chaos unfolding merely 30 miles away, until I noticed both my parents in the car, coming up the school driveway. I remember exactly what I said as got in the car: “Is it a holiday? Why is Daddy here?” A pause, an exchange of glances, perhaps even a small, sad smile at the profound irony of my question.

“There’s been a terrorist attack.”

“What’s a terrorist?”

The answer I was given escapes me, but it was certainly beyond my 6-year-old capacity to understand. Nevertheless, in the days, weeks, months, and years to follow, this terrorist attack came to shape the world I lived in. In Greenwich, Connecticut, 9/11 is not just a tragedy we watched on CNN, or read in the New York Times. It isn’t just a body count or an historical event with causes and effects. 9/11 has faces and names. It has children, wives, husbands, friends, coworkers. That day reached its talons into the very heart of our community and ripped away something we had forgotten was so important, so fundamental: our sense of security. Now, a chill comes over me when I hear a plane flying too low. I make sure the last thing I say to my family is “I love you” before my flight takes off, just in case. I’ve come to accept that I live in a country where my Yemeni French teacher could be imprisoned for weeks without cause or justification. 9/11 was a moment of disillusionment; it showed us that even in the heart of Western civilization, at the pinnacle of wealth and technology, we were not safe. Even many of the adults in my life belong to “a generation that grew up in a period of virtually unalloyed prosperity, for whom Vietnam is a history lesson and the cold war a dim childhood memory, the attacks on the World Trade Center were a sudden, stark discovery of their nation’s vulnerability and the scope of anger in the world” (Arenson). Violence on this scale had always been at a distance, separated by the barriers of time and geography. On 9/11, we became firsthand witnesses to history. It is impossible to comprehend the scale of this one event’s impact on the country I have grown up in. “9/11 is unpossessable” (Versluys, 1), but this does not mean we should not try to understand what it means, how to respond, and how to come to terms with the world it has created.

Since September 11, authors have grappled with the monumental task of capturing this day and its consequences in words. In many ways, this goal is impossible. Without the perspective or closure often found in hindsight, authors of the last decade have taken on the unique challenge of writing about something they cannot make sense of. Readers turn to this new sub-genre of “9/11 literature” for if not explanations, then for honest descriptions, hints and clues at how they might respond. Ultimately, two options present themselves as potential paths toward resolution of the many questions plaguing post-9/11 America. The first is a desire for revenge, embracing anger, and manifesting it in intolerance and blame. The second is an assertion of unity, hope, and communality in the face of unspeakable grief. More simply, the choices are: hate, or love.

Mohsin Hamid’s novel, The Reluctant Fundamentalist suggests that we choose the former. Hamid’s protagonist, a young man named Changez, sees the post-9/11 America as divided and angry, an enemy. The novel tracks his progression from successful businessman to bitter, disenfranchised, potential terrorist. In contrast, Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close espouses a thoroughly different approach. Foer’s hero is a young boy named Oskar Schell, who loses his father in the Twin Towers. Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close follows Oskar as he embarks on a quest to hold onto the memory of his father and heal his  grief. Oskar’s journey brings him together with a varied assortment of people, as he learns to communicate and accept the support of others. Foer shows us a New York that, after 9/11, is beautifully diverse and welcoming. Foer suggests that we must answer death and destruction, not in kind, but with their antidotes: solidarity, compassion, and healing.

Changez’ evolution towards anger and isolation demonstrates the negative consequences of the divisions in American society following 9/11. Before this event, he is an immigrant who has taken advantage of all the opportunities available in the United States. A Princeton graduate, recruited at a top New York firm, he epitomizes the American Dream. Recalling when he began working at the firm, he says, “on that day, I did not think of myself as a Pakistani, but as an Underwood Samson trainee, and my firm’s impressive offices made me proud” (Hamid, 34). Changez finishes training as the number one analyst, and finds a possible mentor in Jim, a senior executive with Underwood Samson. However, this period of success and acceptance does not last. Changez begins to feel like an outsider when he attempts to reenter the country after a business trip to the Philippines. After an unnecessary interrogation by a woman at immigration, and a secondary inspection, he finally is allowed to enter the country. Changez daily experiences in post-9/11 New York seem to show him, over and over, that he does not belong. For example, he explains, “your country’s flag invaded New York after the attacks; it was everywhere. Small flags stuck on toothpicks featured in the shrines; stickers of flags adorned windshields and windows; large flags fluttered from buildings” (Hamid, 79). Already, Changez sees the U.S. as “your country” (the man he is speaking to), not his own country. He chooses to make the flag someone else’s symbol, rather than claiming it as his own. The flag is a tool used to demonstrate solidarity, patriotism, and unity. Changez has the power to embrace it, to display the flag himself, but he refuses to define himself as an American. He feels that the United States has transgressed against him, and develops a grudge against the nation and its people.

The divisions that Changez experiences were in no small part the result of rhetoric by the Bush administration- advocating revenge, labeling enemies. His speeches, no doubt intended to create a uniting “common enemy,” ultimately promulgated hatred and violence. In a speech he gave at Ground Zero to emergency workers, Bush announced, “the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon”. While it may have been comforting for the shocked and grief-stricken city to channel its emotions into blame, that short-term satisfaction did little to engage the healing process. The overwhelming political message in the wake of 9/11 was a call to arms. Instead of focusing on internal healing and providing support for the aggrieved, the political atmosphere after 9/11 was rampant with revanchist attitudes. This message continued for years to come, fueling the War on Terror that became the center of U.S. military action.

The hunt for members of Al Qaeda came to a head in 2012 with the assassination of Osama Bin Laden. Since 2001, Americans had been told that killing this man would make it better, would provide closure, would in some way compensate for their loss. Desperately seeking any information that could lead to the location of terrorists such as Bin Laden, American military forces turned to extreme measures including torture. Abandoning strict ideals of human rights in favor of security, counterterrorist forces gained a kind of immunity from the basic rules of the Constitution. The 2012 film Zero Dark Thirty portrays torture in a stark, realistic way, showing how it destroys both the victim, and his abusers. Americans responded to violence with violence, and thus terrorism succeeds in damaging ideals of American nobility. Director Kathryn Bigelow and Screenwriter Mark Boal depict a War on Terror in which no one wins. The protagonist of the film, Maya, makes the hunt for Bin Laden her life’s work, at the expense of her physical and psychological health, and her personal life. When she succeeds, the final moments of the film show her grappling with grief and emptiness. She has lost herself in the hunt for Bin Laden, and finds herself confused and saddened by her future once it is over. 

Once Bin Laden was killed in 2011, Americans initially rejoiced. Brief celebration soon faded, and it became clear that this minor triumph had done little to soften the blow of 9/11, or to make the country safer from terrorism. Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin explored the aftermath of Bin Laden’s assassination in his television show, The Newsroom. The following scene shows the daughter of a man lost on 9/11, unable to celebrate this news. She now understands that the way to heal is not through revenge.  The violent rhetoric and military action that followed 9/11 appeared on the surface to be an appropriate and effective response. However, the perpetuation of hate and violence ultimately could not heal a society so deeply wounded by this attack.

In contrast, Kristiaan Versluys argues that “common decency is the first and foremost response to terrorist rage. While extreme circumstances strain the bonds of solidarity and communality, self- sacrifice and compassion serve to reassert one’s humanity” (Versluys, 16-17). After 9/11, Americans looked to each other for support. Revealing one’s vulnerability can be difficult, but is essential to authentic communcation. In T.S. Eliot’s poem, The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock,” the narrator wrestles with difficulties in communication. However, Eliot suggests that his protagonist must overcome his fear and engage in genuine dialogue, otherwise he cannot have meaningful interactions with others. Prufrock vocalizes the apprehension he feels with regard to communication, saying, “in short, I was afraid” (Eliot, line 86). Prufrock wants to share, wants to open himself up, but he is paralyzed by fear. He worries that he will offer a piece of himself, be honest and authentic, but will find in response, only rejection and misunderstanding. He envisions the woman to whom he speaks replying, “that is not what I meant at all. That is not it, at all” (l. 97-98). Through Prufrock’s imagining, Eliot illustrates a worst-case scenario, in which the protagonist attempts to share his burden through dialogue, but is met with dismissal. Eliot asserts that authentic interpersonal connection is both crucial, and incredibly difficult. This theory particularly applies in the wake of an event like 9/11, when people are both most vulnerable and most in need of support.

The story of Oskar Schell highlights a reaction to 9/11 that centers on the healing power of connecting with others. Oskar is like J Alfred Prufrock, desperately in need of human interaction and communication. In the wake of the disaster, Oskar is left struggling to understand what has happened, begging, “help me make sense of things that don’t make sense, like him being killed in the building by people who didn’t know him at all” (Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close film). The most difficult part of this experience, for Oskar, is the resulting confusion. Trying to connect with his late father, Oskar treks across New York City with a key he finds among his father’s possessions, desperate to locate the lock to which it belongs. He plans to visit every person with the last name Black (the envelope for the key has “Black” written on it) in the city until he finds the lock. Oskar meets people who are young, old, black, white, American, foreign. So many people open their homes to him, willing to play a role in the quest if it will help a young boy overcome his grief. Oskar’s most significant interaction is with Abby Black, with whom he bonds over a shared interest in elephants. Oskar then asks Abby if he can kiss her, saying, “Humans are the only animal that…kisses with lips. So in a way, the more you kiss with lips, the more human you are” (Foer, 99). Oskar’s view on kissing shows how deeply he values being close to other people. The act of kissing is intimate, beautiful, loving. For Oskar, this act is what makes one human; humanity is defined as an expression of love. Oskar seeks closure through the connections he makes on his quest with the key, leaning on the outpouring of generosity and support he finds amongst the people of New York City.

Foer presents Oskar’s grandfather as a contrast, showing a man who fails to communicate and connect in the wake of disaster. His grandfather, Thomas Schell Sr., loses his first love, Anna, in the Dresden bombing during World War II. As a result of this trauma, Grandpa literally loses his ability to communicate: he stops speaking. Versluys explains that “suppressing his experience of trauma (rather than working it through), [Grandpa] cuts himself off from the world” (Versluys, 88). Language might have given Grandpa a chance to share his story and his grief. However, instead of facing both his trauma and the monumental task of recovering from it, Grandpa completely isolates himself. He even refuses to connect with his wife, Anna’s sister, Grandma. Just after having sex for the first time, Grandma recalls that, she and Grandpa “walked together to the bakery where we first met. Together and separately” (Foer, 84). The juxtaposition of an act of profound physical intimacy and the absence of any emotional intimacy between these two shows how Grandpa’s breakdown in communication damages any chance of making a real connection with another person. Years later, long after Grandpa abandons his wife and son, he tries to restore the relationships and get in contact with them. However, when he tries to explain himself, he cannot speak, but presses the buttons on the telephone. He is “trying to destroy the wall between [himself] and [his] life with [his] finger, one press at a time” (Foer, 272). This metaphor of the wall sheds light on the way Grandpa’s inability to communicate has made it impossible for him to move on. He has been separated from his own life, trapped in his past. Grandpa cannot share his trauma and “without a listener… cannot truly constitute himself as a witness, and, as a result, he remains deprived of the therapeutic potential of testimony” (Versluys, 91). Versluys asserts that bearing witness, documenting one’s experience, and sharing it with others has the potential to heal. Though Grandpa has survived a massacre, it is almost as if he did not. His life ended, with Anna’s, in the bombing of Dresden. Foer presents these two characters, Oskar and Grandpa, and their parallel experiences to demonstrate the impact of trauma on the individual, and the healing power of human connection.

Though more than a decade has passed since the events of September 11, that day remains in the collective American consciousness. Many people have vivid, scarring memories of the attacks and what they meant. While the initial shock and panic have passed, we still exist in a country and even a world very much shaped by 9/11. Works like Hamid’s and Foer’s seek to capture the lived experience of post-9/11 America. Novels like these bear witness to the events as much as any survivor, documenting and revealing this time in our country’s history. In conclusion, I would like to turn to the words of Toni Morrison. On September 13, 2001, Morrison composed a poem entitled “To the Dead of September 11,” in which she addresses those who lost their lives on that day. Rather than embracing nationalist rhetoric or justifiable anger, Morrison writes as a witness, a mourner, and, most importantly, a human. She points to the diversity of those lost in the towers, reminding us that they were “children of ancestors born in every continent” (Morrison, l. 7-8), dispelling the impulse to divide the country racially, to designate an “us” and a “them” based on national origins. Like Foer’s diverse picture of New York City, Morrison’s words honor the great diversity that is the very fabric of American society. Morrison rejects the sentiments of anger put forth in the political sphere, asking that we “abandon sentences crafted to know evil- wanton or studied; explosive or quietly sinister; whether born of a sated appetite or hunger; of vengeance or the simple compulsion to stand up before falling down” (l. 16-19). She acknowledges that there exists a natural pull towards desire for revenge, a need to assert oneself in the face of vulnerability. Nevertheless, she calls on Americans to put aside these feelings, to recognize that the country needs not anger, but compassion.

Morrison suggests that to respond with violence and hatred is to mar the sacrifice of those who died. The terrorists themselves perpetuate the belief that violence is the answer, and Morrison implies that to respond in kind is to stoop to their level. She writes, “speaking to the broken and the dead is too difficult for a mouth full of blood. Too holy an act for impure thoughts” (l. 23-24). To Morrison, a mouth speaking words of anger is one “full of blood,” a mind consumed by thoughts of vengeance is “impure.” In this moment, she calls upon both her own strength and that of every American to deny this temptation and to respect those who have lost their lives. For Morrison, there is therapy in writing her poem. Her words are humble; she too is at a loss after the attacks. In the end, Morrison expresses the only option she has: “I have nothing to give… except this gesture, this thread thrown between your humanity and mine” (l. 34-35). The only thing left, when fear and violence have wreaked havoc on the very foundations of American society, is shared humanity. Our duty to ourselves, and to each other, is to continue to respect that humanity.

Just as in a conversation, comfort and healing can be found in the dialogue between the written word and the reader. From Hamid and Foer, to Eliot and Morrison, literature is an act of bearing witness, of laying bare some part of an author’s psyche or experience. Of the plethora of 9/11-centric writings that emerged in the early 2000s, Philip Metres writes, “it made some of us feel that we were not alone, that this terrible event came from terror and could lead to terror, and that the witness of poetry was more necessary than ever” (Metres). Events like 9/11 ignite the innately human desire to feel that we are not alone. We want to know that others are as afraid, as confused, as we are. We cannot yet know the scope of 9/11’s impact, and the process of healing from it is arduous and complex. But it is clear that coming to terms with it and achieving closure requires the utmost in compassion and solidarity. 9/11 is a deep scar in the collective memory of Americans, and just as we have all been wounded together, thus we must grieve and recover.

Works Cited

Arenson, Karen W. “After the Attacks: College; A Generation Unfamiliar with Feeling Vulnerable.” The New York Times14 Sept., 2001 2001. Print.

Zero Dark Thirty. Dir. Bigelow, Kathryn. Prod. Colin Wilson, Ted Schipper, and Greg Shapiro. Perf. Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke and Joel Edgerton. DVD. Columbia Pictures, 2012.

Bush, George W., “Bullhorn Address to Ground Zero Workers.” New York, New York. 14 Sept. 2001. Address.

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. Dir. Daldry, Stephen. Prod. Scott Rudin. Perf. Tom Hanks, Sandra Bullock and Thomas Horn. Video. Warner Bros. Pictures, 2011.

Eliot, T. S. “The Love-Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”. Prufrock and Other Observations. From Poems. New York: A.A. Knopf, 1920; Bartleby.com, 2011. www.bartleby.com/198/1.html. 10 Dec. 2013.

Foer, Jonathan Safran. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. New York: Mariner Books, 2005. Print.

Hamid, Mohsin. The Reluctant Fundamentalist. New York: Mariner Books, 2008. Print.

Metres, Philip. “The Poetry of 9/11 and its Aftermath.” The Huffington Post. 9 Sept., 2011 2011. Print.

Morrison, Toni. “The Dead of September 11 (2001).” Literary Sampler. The Legacy Project. 10 Dec. 2013. <http://www.legacy-project.org/index.php?page=lit_detail&litID=83>.

“5/1.” The Newsroom. Writ. Aaron Sorkin. Dir. Joshua Marston. HBO, 2012. <http://www.hbogo.com>.

Versluys, Kristiaan. Out of the Blue : September 11 and the Novel. New York: Columbia University Press, 2009.

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