If you live in New England, early September often has mornings with a chill in the air, where the sun wakes up late, dew floods the grass and, above, the cloudless azure mirrors eternity. As the sun moves higher up in the sky, with the desiccated summer heat gone, a perfect California-type of air takes over. Leaves have not yet turned orange, red or brown, nor have they fallen from their branches. Many people still wear their shorts and t-shirts from mid-summer.
September 11, 2001 was one of those mornings.
I was with a crew building a deck in Derry, New Hampshire when I received the phone call. Only the footings, beams and support posts were built. I was underneath the beams, starting to hammer the joists into place.
It was my uncle, so I picked up the call.
“It’s over,” he said, sniffling.
“What are you talking about?”
“Aaron was in the towers. He worked on the thirty-fourth floor. I tried calling but he’s not picking up.”
“I wouldn’t worry about it. He probably went out for a coffee.”
“You’re not listening, Mike! He was in the towers!”
“So?” I asked.
The other line went dead.
I continued working and a short while later, Jose said, “Holy shit! Planes hit the World Trade Center in New York!”
And… you know the story.
First there was confusion: which towers were hit, which fell, which might fall, were there still hijacked planes haunting American skies, how many people died and who did this? Amidst these questions, complete shock set in while watching constant replays of the planes flying into the towers.
As the days went by, shock and confusion turned into anger and rage seething like a rabid dog foaming at the mouth.
That was my first fall after high school. I didn’t have a lot happening other than building decks and going to rock clubs around Boston with a fake ID. I had a good friend who was a “truther” before that became a thing. In less than two weeks after the attacks, he was already relaying to me conspiracy theories about September 11th that he read on the internet. But I didn’t buy them.
As it became colder and hammering nails into nascent decks continued, I felt myself changing.
The deck crew debated whether we should attack Afghanistan, Iraq or even bomb the entire Middle East, besides Israel. But I didn’t get involved. I just focused on hammering, as if studying the repeat of metal going into wood would bury what was bothering me.
I began to realize that there were enemies among us. And when I say “us,” I don’t mean white people, black people, or any group in particular; I just mean there was a feeling that anyone could be a terrorist, even the people I worked with. They may have talked a good game about wanting to bomb the Middle East. But what if that was just a front? How could I be sure that one of them wouldn’t bomb my family’s house?
One day in late October we were at a job in Brattleboro, Vermont. It was pouring. The rain came down in sheets with golf ball-sized sleet mixed in. For some reason, the other guys in the crew didn’t seem to mind. They went about their work like it was any other day and, as usual, talked politics and what the U.S. should do in response to 9/11.
The crew leader, Jerry, turned to me and said, “Mike, we never hear from you. What do you think we should do?”
I stopped hammering and looked at him. He had a wide, puffy face, short, dirty blonde hair and was smiling. His face was soaking, and he’d occasionally wipe his brow with a towel that we used to remove deck stains from our hands.
“It doesn’t matter what I think.”
“Because I’m not the government.”
He and the other three in the crew laughed.
“Thank God for that!”
“You’re missing the point,” I said.
“Oh yeah? And what’s that?”
“Terrorists could be anyone. You, Roy, Joe, Jose. Anyone. I could be a terrorist.”
“Whoa… Easy there, kid. This is just a laid-back conversation…”
They left me alone after that.
There were other disturbing news stories of an attempted shoe bomb on an airplane, anthrax was mailed to congresspeople and there was always an “orange”—High—alert for a possible terrorist attack. Anything could happen at any moment. I tried to explain this to my conspiracy theorist friend, but he insisted that was just the narrative we were “fed.”
One night this friend and I went to Jackie’s Diner, a bar with a small restaurant downstairs and a dim room upstairs where local rock bands performed. That night Drowned Thought Machine was playing. The singer had a foot-high blonde mohawk, clear, light blue eyes and tattoos all over his arms and neck. When he sang, he tried to catch each of the audience members’ eyes. The bass player was a lanky woman over six-feet tall with an expressionless face. The guitarist had a black-haired mohawk, dark-rimmed glasses and chain-smoked cigarettes throughout the set. The drummer in the back was barely visible and she sang backup vocals to a few songs.
Like a lot of bands that we saw those days, the music was a mix of hard rock, blues and punk—the kind that The White Stripes would soon popularize. Although my friend and I weren’t dancing like most of the crowd, we stood right in front. It was loud as hell, and I knew my ears would ring the next day.
Toward the end of the set, a song began with a catchy, thudding, John Bonham-style beat on the drums. The guitarist was trying to light another cigarette, but the lighter didn’t work, and the bassist was at the bar getting a drink. The singer looked wide-eyed at the audience like he was possessed. He half-sang, half-shouted the same lyrics over and over. At first, I couldn’t make out what he was saying. People in the crowd started eyeing one another. Soon, it became clear that he was shouting, “Making bombs for the Taliban! I’m making bombs for the Taliban!” After a few minutes, the guitarist and bassist accompanied the music, but the lyrics didn’t change at all during the seven-minute song.
The singer proved my theory: terrorists could be anyone. They could be you. They could be me. One thing was for sure: the singer was one of them. In retrospect, some might say the lyrics were ironic or that he was critiquing the U.S.’ policy on Afghanistan. But I could see in his frenzied eyes that he was making bombs to be used on American households. If I didn’t do something, he might blow up my family’s house.
I went to the bathroom with a glass in hand and broke the top off on the porcelain sink. Its jagged edges gleamed under the bright bathroom lights like a jaguar’s fangs. I stuffed it into my flannel shirt, went back to the performance and stood beside my friend. When the song ended, I walked up to the singer.
His eyes had become less frenzied. He smiled at me and probably thought I was going to compliment the music.
“Hey man. What’s up?” he asked.
I shrugged and turned back to the audience, who all seemed to egg me on.
I turned back to him. His mouth was open, and he was about to say something.
I reached under my shirt and removed the jagged glass. Holding the flat end, I jabbed the toothed-end deep into his neck several times before being pulled away by the audience.
Today is another one of those early September mornings. The air is chilly and the sky bluer than the sea. A light breeze runs through my fingers as I walk out of prison on the twentieth anniversary of 9/11.
A few weeks ago, the Taliban retook Afghanistan.
But you can be sure that the Nazi-lookalike singer with the blonde mohawk won’t be making bombs for them this time.