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Personal Essay: Growing Up After 9/11
Saddam Hussein Ruined Valentine’s Day: A Quick Millennial Reflection on Life After 9/11
“Saddam Hussein is going to drop little parachutes of poisonous gas from the sky,” said my friend Alex. We were in 2nd grade. It had been a year since 9/11, and as a seven year-old, I couldn’t distinguish between the politics of Middle Eastern affairs. Essentially, I lumped all of the bad events together. All I knew was a year before, two tall buildings collapsed a few days before my birthday in New York and a plane crashed into the Pentagon, but President Bush would fix everything.
“Really?” I asked.
“Yeah, he’s going to drop them on Valentine’s Day.”
My memory is fuzzy on where she said she heard that information, but 2nd graders aren’t typically concerned with finding accurate sources. I spent the days after that with a churning stomach as I folded over small Valentine’s cards and wrote my classmates’ names on them. I was normally excited for Valentine’s Day — just as I was for every holiday. Instead, I was anxious for the day to pass without being pelted by airborne poison.
The day of Valentine’s Day, I would occasionally look out the window to see if my friend’s prediction would come true. Obviously it didn’t, but the day brought realization years later that most of my fears as a child were dictated by the politics of US relations with the Middle East, the War on Terror, and the evolved guerrilla warfare of terrorism.
During the summer I visited the Postal Museum in Washington, DC. It doesn’t sound like a cool museum, but it ended up being one of my favorite places I visited. Besides rare and unique stamps, the museum showcased various exhibits on stamp art and history, how carrying mail has evolved, and one that focused on crime via the mail. At first, it was mostly just about mail fraud and chain letters. There was an interactive exhibit where you would try and identify the culprit based off the suspect description and police sketch. I learned I’m not cut out for a career in forensics and kept exploring further down the hall.
I entered a room with a bio-hazard suit and a beat-up old mailbox behind a glass case. It was an exhibit about the anthrax panic. As expected, pictures of the infamous anthrax letter were displayed next to it.
What I didn’t expect was the actual letter staring back at me when I pressed a button, illuminating a light box. Though a small note next to it indicated that the letter and envelope had been decontaminated, I felt uneasy the same way I did when I was a kid watching or hearing portions of the news. The letter conjured up a lot of memories, including 9/11 and the spree of events that avalanched afterwards.
The actual day of 9/11, I was a 1st grader and asked my mom why I didn’t have cheerleading practice that week. She told me about the planes. My cousin was in New York for a business trip, so I asked if he was okay. I was relieved to know that he was in a completely different part of the state.
“But who would do that?” I asked my mom innocently.
“Bad men,” she replied, wanting to move on from the subject.
I had this strange image in my mind of a green-faced, Joker-esque man hijacking the planes. To me, a bad guy looked exactly like something out of a DC or Marvel movie. I believed in a “good vs. bad’ binary where it was obvious to find the bad guy because they would fit the “bad guy” aesthetic. Everytime I heard anything about terrorism, a shooting, or anything else that made up modern horror stories on the news, I envisioned that same boogeyman-type person behind it all.
When the DC snipers were crawling around DC and Virginia, simply going out to eat or to school worried me. According to my grandmother, I would sink down in my seat when I saw a white van. When asked why I was hiding, I would respond by saying that the news said the DC Snipers were thought to be driving around in a white van.
Of course 15 years later, I know that suspects of terrorism don’t look like superhero villains, but people of any background. That was just what I came up with to give the cause of my anxiety a face, the thing that FDR ironically attempted to comfort us with over 80 years ago: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
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