It is easy, with a handful of years behind us, to say that on September 11, 2001, everything changed. It is easy to look back and see ourselves shifted into shadow and grief as though in that one horrible moment, something black crossed in front of the sun. And for some it is true, it was an instant between fine and not fine, between blissfully complacent and angry with fear, between the world being a boundless universe of wonder and the world collapsing into the space between our bodies and our television sets. It is easy to focus to that long awful moment when the planes reappeared, hit the towers or the ground, and everything fell.
But though my phone rang with concerns for my safety and well being — I was clear the other side of the country! — though my neighbor and I sat, stunned, and watched over and over as the smoke rose, as the text across the bottom of my TV stated that two other planes were “missing”, though I could not believe my eyes, it was not right then that I felt the change. It was not until I headed to the airport eight, or maybe twelve weeks later that the feeling of something lost crept up the back of my neck and settled on me, right there in the departures terminal. I have never enjoyed flying, but I have also never been afraid. And in December, 2001, for the first time in life, I was afraid to fly.
I do not wish to belittle the tremendous loss felt by the families who lost those they loved on September 11th. I can not express my sympathy, still, for their pain and my hope that some day, justice will be served. My loss, this minor shift in feeling, is insignificant, it’s nothing in the face of the gaping holes where fathers and mothers and sisters and brothers and lovers and friends used to stand. The change for me is a small one, a falling out of love, the disappointment of a broken heart, the tarnishing of something that once seemed valuable. But it’s my loss, it’s the one I know, the one I can speak about.
September 11 changed travel. Not just for me, but for everyone, everywhere in the world. I saw it in 2008 when I handed over an unopened bottle of water that I’d purchased on the wrong side of the gate in Bangkok. I saw it last month when my sister in law, visiting from Europe, described the complicated visitor registration process she had to go through. I saw when, in 2006, rushing to make a connecting flight in London, the airlines staff raced me to the gate only to call me to a full stop to remove my shoes. I saw it in May when I dropped my husband off and was bullied on the airport drive for sitting too long in one place. My friend with the generic name who’s on the no-fly list sees it. My Indian friend who’s always pulled aside for special screening sees it. My house guests who arrived last weekend — via a domestic flight — without toothpaste see it. It is everywhere, this blanket of security wrapped around travel, designed to make us believe that there are those out to get us and those who are working hard to keep us safe.
I never minded the steely faced interrogators at the departures gate in Amsterdam or Munich because everyone got the same treatment but I hated — I still hate — taking off my shoes and pouring out my soda. In Molokai’s tiny airport, I handed my unopened drink to some loitering taxi drivers rather than throw it away before being liberated of my sunscreen ten minutes later by a security guard. I’ve watched frustrated mothers in London hand over items that they’d been given on their previous flight because they weren’t allowed into the arrivals terminal. I’ve watched young guys in desert garb singled out for special screening and I’ve been pulled into that line myself.
After 9/11, Americans everywhere put their international holidays on hold. I flew anyway, holding my breath, eying the other passengers, thinking of the words of our former county executive, Ron Sims, who spoke at a rally I attended shortly after 9/11. “No man can cause me to fear my neighbor,” he said, and I hoped that was the case but I knew it wasn’t true any more because there I was, afraid for the first time since I’d walked solo in the Himalayas, since I woke up completely off the grid in Pakistan, since I wandered the streets of Alexandria, lost. I had never been afraid and there I was, in the departures terminal in Seattle’s airport, afraid.
All the details in air travel conspire to remind us that we are afraid. The theater of security, the zip-lock bags, the piles of half empty water bottles. The bins of discarded items, too sharp to take on the plane, the passengers in their socks repacking their electronics. You, hipster guy next to me in line for that flight to Austin, you are an object of fear. You, 70-something guy clearing security in Tucson, unraveling your complicated back brace, because it contains metal stays, you are an object of fear. Girl in skinny jeans and Converse high tops, Russian family with complicated luggage, nursing mother, all of you, everyone in line is a suspect until security tells us otherwise. You are an object of fear.
There are, I’m sure, sophisticated reports that tell us exactly how much money was lost in travel since 9/11. We can probably find data that lists the number of canceled trips, of vacant hotel rooms, of airline seats left empty. There are numbers that will tell us how many security officers have been hired and how many Swiss Army knives have been confiscated. But there’s no measure for this tiny loss, this cumulative fear. Yes, everything changed in that instant, of course it did, how could anyone think otherwise? It didn’t stop there, though, with this catastrophic lurch in American society. It continued, a gradual erosion of optimism, a cliched loss of innocence.
It feels so long ago, I am older now. I will not see Afghanistan in this life, I will not see Baghdad. I doubt I will make that magical drive across the deserts of Persia, the Silk Road doesn’t seem to be in my future anymore. I have to wait for my next life as an Arabic nomad, as a different wanderer than I am today. For now, when I travel, I face my fear. I am afraid. I go anyway; I take my fear with me. This is what has changed. It is nothing, I know, but it is my loss. A slow shift, a minor weight, a broken heart.