This post reflects on significant traumatic events including the shooting at Columbine High School, the twin towers attack of 9/11, and the shooting death of an Iranian women during the Arab Spring.
“Where were you when JFK was shot?” It’s an American question people of a certain age can answer. Some events feel so monumental as they happen, our minds preserve the moments in all their incongruous context. I was born well after that assassination. But this idea of a significant event everyone could have an inconsequential story about stayed with me.
I was sixteen, sitting in the art classroom at my high school. It was the teacher’s free period but he let advanced students come in to work on projects, so long as our others teachers approved. Mr. R. was a Volvo driving hippie with a chip on his shoulder. He had the radio tuned to NPR. Suddenly the song cut out and a live reporter was talking breathlessly about a school shooting in progress. Screams of children in the background almost drowned her out.
And I knew I’d remember the moment, even before the dead and injured were all accounted for. The victims and killers were all my age, my lover’s age, my best friend’s age. It was impossible not to think of myself and people I loved in either role. “This is my generation’s shot heard round the world” I thought.
I was eighteen. It was morning and I worked the graveyard shift at a diner the night before. I was asleep and didn’t understand why my mother was getting me up. She was crying, a rare thing for her. “A plane hit one of the twin towers and people are trapped.” I walked out to the living room just in time to see another plane hit the second tower. I retreated to my bedroom, pulled out a bottle of vodka I kept hidden in my closet, and drank. After a few shots I was able to face the live broadcast again.
My brother went into survivalist mode, filling all the family vehicles and a few handheld tanks with gasoline, and bringing over his small arsenal of hunting rifles and ammunition. I couldn’t stay in the house with all those guns, so I went out driving with my friend and some boy I was seeing. (I can’t remember his name or what he looked like.) My friend and I drank wine in coffee cups in the backseat of his car and noticed which things stayed open that day: strip clubs, liquor stores, and churches.
I was 26 years old and sunning myself by a pool in Florida. No one else was there on the weekday afternoon I spent furiously retweetung first aid instructions and updates on the Iranian election protests. It already felt strange to think of panic and chaos and tear gas in the night from that idyllic scene. A woman almost exactly my age Neda Agha-Soltan, born five days before me, was shot in the back and killed. Over the next three or four minutes I saw her name become an international hashtag, and I could feel how symbolic her death would become.
I remember it was sunny.