I wrote this last year on 9/11, around the time the brouhaha over the Park 51 community center/mosque was occurring. Since tomorrow is the 10th anniversary of 9/11 and things haven’t changed all that much, I thought it deserved a repost.
I’ve seen a lot of “where were you when” and “never forget” posts on Facebook and Twitter today, and I’ve resisted posting anything of my own because it’s hard to know what to say that won’t smack of cheap sentimentality. But as the day’s worn on, I’ve realized that I have to say something, if only for myself, if only to process my thoughts and feelings surrounding recent events that, like a once latent and now active infection, threaten to re-open a wound I thought was well on its way to healing.
On September 11, 2001, I was in my 9am class at Marymount University in Arlington, VA. I got out around 10:30 and trekked to my car to exchange one heavy nursing textbook for another in preparation for the next class. As I headed back out of the garage, I met with a fellow classmate.
“School is canceled for the rest of the day,” she said. “We all have to go home.”
“2 planes crashed into the World Trade Center, and another into the Pentagon.”
“The dean just told me. It’s all over the news. They’re canceling classes.”
I stood for a moment, like everyone else on that day who wasn’t actually on the scene, in slack jawed disbelief, trying to process what sounded like a plot point from a Tom Clancy novel. I got into my car and turned on the radio, trying to find a news station, thinking that it couldn’t be that bad if they hadn’t bothered to interrupt the greatest hits of the 80’s, 90’s, and today. I settled into a station and listened as the newscasters described the scene in New York and the one just a few miles down river from me.
At this time, there was still a great deal of confusion as to what exactly was going on. There were reports (speculations?) of bombs planted in downtown DC, and a possible evacuation. I figured I’d best get the hell outside the beltway ASAP- who knew what would happen? Rioting? Looting? A nuclear weapon? I listened to the description of the flames, and the jumpers, and the towers’ collapse with despair and disbelief mingled on my face as tears welled up in my eyes. I was stopped at a light and the car next to me honked its horn.
The woman inside gestured to me to roll my window down. “Are you listening to what’s happening?” she asked. I nodded yes as the tears threatened to spill over. “Are you okay?” she said.
“Yeah. What about you?”
She nodded yes. The light turned green as we looked at one another, finding comfort in the kinship of shared horror, the need for human connection outweighing the desire to stay safely ensconced in the personal protective shells we call automobiles. “Be careful. Get home safely!” she cried as the cars behind us grew restless and began honking.
“You too!” I called earnestly as we went our separate ways.
I made my way to my parent’s house in the western DC suburbs and spent the rest of the day planted in front of the TV with my brothers, watching the infinite loop of plane, collision, explosion, inferno,and collapse, numbed by shock and lulled into a trance by the endless repetition of images and the dulcet tones of Peter Jennings.
A few days later, I attended a prayer service with my mother. Many businesses and homes were flying American flags, but the gas stations, most of which were owned by Middle Easterners, seemed to have the most and the biggest flags. There had been reports in the news of Muslim women coming to work without their hijabs, dressed in the most non-descript clothing possible, some even wearing khakis to emphasize their conformity to American norms. We prayed, among other things, that the nature and origin of these attacks would not be cause for violence or division within our country, amongst our own citizens. We prayed that, in the words of St. Paul, we would not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
After church, my mom asked me where I wanted to eat lunch. “How about Moby Dick?” I said, and she agreed. Moby Dick House of Kabob is a DC Persian food chain, and while I was genuinely hungry for hummus and kabob-e-joojeh, I was desperate for some way to tell people, don’t worry! I know you are not like the people who attacked us. You are our neighbors. You are us.
I have never seen so many lily white faces at Moby Dick at one time. While Middle Eastern food is hardly exotic in the diverse and cultured environs of DC, the patrons were usually at least 50% Arab/Persian/etc. At the restaurant counter, a man asked the proprietor how business had been since Tuesday, and he said not too bad. A lot of people had come in to show their support.
It is human nature to look for a silver lining in the darkest and heaviest cloud, and in the days and weeks following the attacks, there was a lot of speculation about how this event would change us, all of us, all Americans. We heard about New Yorkers being nice! In the streets! To complete strangers! Travelers stranded at far-flung airports, unable to fly home, were taken in, fed, and even clothed by shiny-faced, good-hearted locals. Comparisons were made to the solidarity, cooperation, and band-of-brotherness we exhibited during World War II (conveniently ignoring that whole internment camp business). Op-eds extolled the virtues of the American character; the pluck, determination, and can-do attitude that built this nation from a scattered collection of ramshackle forts and settlements founded by hardy pioneers, opportunists, criminals, and religious extremists into a vast and shining city on a hill, spanning a continent, shore to shore. We, the people, once again believed our own hype, our founding myth. We believed in freedom, and liberty, and peace love and understanding, and that was why they hated us, because we were so damn virtuous.
In that moment, immediately after 9/11, while we were invading Afghanistan, but before we turned our sights to Iraq, we knew that everything had changed. We were no longer safe in our post-cold war continental bunker, separated from the world’s trouble spots and their accompanying violence by the the protective bubbles of the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, well out of reach of any long-range missiles. And yet, we hoped that the change would be for the better, that if we had lost our way in the post-WWII miasma of Vietnam, Watergate, the culture wars, and the rise of soulless consumerism, that we might find it again and become the people we always knew we could be.
Of course, the undercurrent of fear and resentment was there, the Pats- Buchanan and Robertson- and other assorted characters insisting that we were fighting a holy war, planting the seeds of, if not outright calling for, a cultural purging. And I know there were many everyday folk, even before the attacks, who were suspicious of Middle Easterners and Muslims, and distrust of the other is nothing new. But… at the same time, with the exception of those few outliers, the national debate over how to address our security needs centered around the practicality of what to do, not the dogma of who was more righteous. Pundits argued that even though we all knew most Muslims were not terrorists, and true Islam is a religion of peace, it might be necessary to engage in racial profiling for lack of better methods. In order to be safe, we might have to attenuate our democratic ideals, for a little while, at least.
Maybe you think I’m remembering a bit hazily, that the debate over Islam was always as rancorous as it is at present, and maybe I am. However, I would ask you to consider this:
In the late 80’s, my parents refused to sign a petition circulated by the HOA in our neighborhood. This petition asked the county government to shut down the small home school run by a Muslim woman for a few special needs children on a property that was neither in our neighborhood nor on our street but that happened to share a portion of a fence with one house in the neighborhood. My parents refused on the grounds that it was religious discrimination, and if we let people discriminate against them, they’d be coming for us next. In 2001, my mother gladly joined me in my naive outreach to the good people of the Moby Dick House of Kabob, relieved to see a busy restaurant and proof that people like her were not mindless bigots. Later that year my parents and I discussed the infamous “Isaac and Ishmael” episode of The West Wing, an episode that while perhaps simplistic in its treatment of prejudice and racial profiling got an awful lot of people talking (“Everybody at work was talking about it,” said my mother) and sympathising with the one-off beleaguered Arab character. A few years later she told me about a friend she had at work, a woman who was “the best Christian I know. And you know what? She’s Muslim.”
In 2008 my parents were sending me forwarded emails about the secret Muslim origins of Barack Obama, the destructive and anti-american ideology he was indoctrinated with as a young boy in Jakarta, and the violence and hatred at the heart of all Islam. My father, who despite his conservatism once viewed Rush Limbaugh with disdain, now listens to him regularly. I don’t know what their view of the the Park 51/Cordoba House controversy is, as they’ve learned to stop forwarding emails and we’ve both learned to stop discussing politics, but I suspect, given their news sources and friends of theirs who DO forward me emails that they oppose it.
The fault lines- conservative vs liberal, urban vs rural, northern vs southern, common vs elite, true Christian vs “lukewarm” Christian vs non-Christian, real American vs un-American, stretch back almost 400 years, to the profane soldiers of fortune who founded the Jamestown colony and the priggish separatists who landed in New England, the shrewd Dutch merchants of Manhattan, and the various Natives they all managed to displace. They run through the Whiskey Rebellion, the Civil War, and all the conflagrations of the 20th century. We’ve never been one homogeneous people, and there’s never been one America, and we’ve always had to contend with the things that divide us.
But nine years ago there was a brief moment when we believed the dream, and hoped that the collective horror of September 11 might allow us to work through our differences in the pursuit of a common purpose and mend, or at least bridge, the fault lines. “Those bastards don’t know who they’re messing with,” we said. And now, after two long and divisive wars and a bitterly contested presidential election, those fault lines seem to widen and gape as we stand on our opposite sides playing a never-ending game of chicken, wondering who will be first to jump into the abyss, and I have to think, Goddamn. Those terrorists sure as hell knew what they were doing.