Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Where Were You on 9/11? Don't Ask

For 11 years we've remembered the day that terrorists flew planes into the Twin Towers, the Pentagon, and a field in Pennsylvania, killing nearly 3,000 innocent people. But I still avoid conversations that begin: Where were you on 9/11? I know it's an open-ended question that prompts us to share first-hand accounts of that tragic day and its global impact. But whether it's survivor's guilt, hypersensitivity, or both, I just don't feel comfortable sharing my story.

Maybe it's because I was a young reporter at a daily newspaper in the suburbs north of New York City, just getting to work with no idea how big a story it was. Or perhaps, it was because my job post-9/11 was to help find out who died and write about them. In the first few days and weeks, it was making calls and knocking on doors, trying to find out if husbands and wives knew the status of their loved ones. Soon, I was covering memorial services and funerals, from Central Park to Scarsdale, learning about the people who died just because they worked in those two towers. It was hard for sure; but I always felt lucky just to be alive. I saw the funerals as a chance not only to write about the lives of victims, but also to learn from them. Some weeks or months after 9/11, the news staff received an email from a top editor, recognizing the work we had all done and offering us the option to turn down another funeral assignment if it was just too tough. I remember appreciating that message: the editors recognized we were all human.

Still, I never turned down an assignment. It was not because I was better than other reporters, whom I hope took breaks whenever needed. But I guess I saw reporting as my duty to the victims and their families. It didn't matter where I was on 9/11; it only mattered where they were.

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