On September 11, 2001, I had just arrived at Princeton for my freshman year. Classes were to begin a couple days later, and I was terribly excited and felt terribly privileged to be there, just 11 years after my family emigrated to the United States with nothing. After a morning orientation event, I got a frantic phone call from my mother, who had been trying to reach me for hours: Two planes had crashed into buildings in nearby New York, she said. The words didn’t even make sense to me so I found a television, and the images didn’t either: Planes crashing into elegant towers, over and over and over again. It all looks like a movie, I kept saying to the students around me. It was so hard to feel whatever we were supposed to feel that day when it looked so much like a movie.
What followed was a simmering panic: Are there more planes? Are they going to attack malls? Universities? Though classes started as scheduled, soon they found anthrax in the Princeton post office. One day, I got back from class to find my mother had sent me a survival package: a down jacket, a flash light, and five types of antibiotics. It was fitting that my first days of living alone, of entering adulthood, coincided with America losing its sense that its oceans were its cover. And it is even stranger what that fear and panic has evolved into for me and my classmates over our adult lives: We have been living in an America that is constantly at war. Hot wars, wars that blended offense and defense, wars against insurgents and wars against concepts, wars that end only so that others may begin, however reluctantly.
And yet, we have gone back to that same state we were in on September 10, feeling warm and swaddled in our two oceans, feeling (even if our intellect says differently) that, since it hasn’t happened for a while, it probably won’t happen again, and that the wars we wage are happening to someone else, somewhere far, far away. No rations, no drafts. Instead, jobs, bars, weddings, parties, and all the comfortable minutiae that is life in America. For the vast majority of us who didn’t go fight and don’t know anyone who did—because, for the most part, it’s not our socioeconomic class that did the fighting—life went on, unchanged and unfazed, even if we occasionally vented our conceptual frustration with the wars at the ballot box or on the page.
What I mean is, that day, which was supposed to so change everything, well, it didn’t. We found a new normal, a way to be comfortable with this, too, with living in Rome while our armies fight on the margins of the known world.